Navigating organic and non-organic foods can be difficult, especially when food labels use tricky and distracting terms. In the teenage years, it is extra important that adolescents get optimal nutrients to nourish their growing bodies. Should a teen eat organic food?
It’s best to eat whatever produce you can afford. Don’t feel pressured or guilty if you can’t exclusively buy organic foods. You don’t need to buy all of your teen’s food organic, but there are some organic foods that are beneficial. Focus on meeting recommendations of fruits and vegetables in general, regardless if they are organic or not. Any type of fruits and vegetables are better than none at all. If your teen has a favorite food they consume often, it may be beneficial to look for organic.
Knowing what the term “organic” means can help teenagers and their parents decide if organic food is right for them. With different levels of organic food, it is important to know how to spot the differences. In some cases, conventional foods are just as adequate as organic options.
Read on to learn more about organic food and whether or not it is right for you or your teenager.
Organic Food: What is it?
The term “organic” is defined in specific terms by the United States Department of Agriculture. Organic foods from animals are made from animals that are not given antibiotics or hormones for growth. Organic plant foods are grown and harvested without the use of conventional pesticides, fertilizers, synthetic ingredients, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
In addition to being produced by the most pure means possible, organic farms must be certified organic by a government-approved source. This verifies that USDA standards are upheld for handling and processing of the food in addition to the organic farming.
Within organic, there are essentially three levels that describe how much of the product is organic. You’ll see these on food labels:
- 100% organic – Indicates that the product is completely or only made of organic ingredients. These products qualify for a USDA organic seal.
- Organic – Indicates the product is at least 95% organic, or that 95% of its ingredients are organic. This designation also qualifies for these claims with a USDA Organic seal.
- Made with Organic Ingredients – Indicates that at least 70% of the product or its ingredients are organic. The USDA organic seal cannot be used on these products but the phrase “made with organic ingredients” can appear on the label or package.
What is “Clean Eating” and Does It Include Organic Food?
Clean eating lacks a clear consensus in terms of definition. It mainly means eating a diet that cuts out junk food and processed foods and focuses on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean proteins. By eating lots of whole foods it may seem ideal to choose organic foods.
Many try to eat organic thinking that organic means healthy. However, if not carefully approached, clean eating practices can turn rigid and restrictive.
Organic eating is encouraged as long as it fits into a balanced eating plan. For those sensitive to toxin exposure, choosing organic food may help to mediate unpleasant symptoms.
Including organic foods as part of a clean eating plan is an excellent decision for many, as long as it promotes eating more whole and minimally processed foods. The hunt for organic foods can turn harmful, especially for teens, if it predisposes them to limited food choices and disordered eating.
Keep in mind that “clean foods” isn’t a protected label, and it doesn’t have a standard definition. Many teenagers and consumers can benefit from working with a dietitian to better understand nutrition labels and how to spot tricky marketing targeted at teen consumers.
Pros and Cons of Organic Food
“Clean” doesn’t necessarily mean safe or higher quality. While the standards of the word “organic” are mentioned above, organic produce is still exposed to pesticides. The pesticides in organic farming are simply natural, but they may be manufactured.
In other words, labels and self-imposed restrictions can make shopping for organic food difficult. Dietitians recommend trying an approach that is not based in fear but rather an approach that focuses on building a foundation of whole foods.
Teens are in an impressionable time, and it is important for them to be involved in the decision making efforts regarding their own health and wellness. Inviting them to investigate the pros and cons of organic eating can be a great way to ease them into discussions about their nutritional needs.
Benefits and Risks of Eating Organic Foods:
- Not allowed to be produced on lands exposed to sewage sludge
- Available at most supermarkets
- Small to moderate increase of nutritional value (depending on the food)
- Lower toxic metal levels, bacteria, and pesticide residues
- Can be more expensive than conventional counterparts
- Evidence isn’t clear if they are the healthier option
- Organic does not equal “healthy” (labels can be unclear)
All in all, organic food choices are personal and individual. Each teen is unique, with a different body and different set of circumstances. A main reason parents don’t buy organic produce (and other foods) is that it is more expensive and less available. If this is your situation remember this- It’s better to eat any produce at all than to eat none, even if it is conventional. Buy whatever produce you can afford because it will still be better than eating processed foods.
See below for lists of foods to buy organic on any budget and what foods are okay to purchase from conventional vendors.
Foods to Buy Organic
Harvard Health recommends “focusing your food dollars where it matters the most”. An easy way to do this is by referencing the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) “Dirty Dozen”. This list contains the top 12 foods most likely to contain contaminants.
In other words, try and buy these foods organic when you can:
There are some criticisms with the EWG’s research and methods, but if organic is important to you it can still be a good place to start your own research. Remember, any produce is better than none at all.
The EWG also provides a “Clean Fifteen” list, which helps consumers choose the conventional produce least likely to contain pesticides. These are the 15 foods that are probably fine to buy in conventional (non-organic) forms:
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Honeydew Melon
Organic foods are more accessible today because it is a growing trend. Don’t feel pressured or guilty if you can’t exclusively buy organic foods. Any type of fruits and vegetables are better than none at all.
Help your teen aim for 5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day, whether or not they are organic.
How to Know if Organic Food is the Right Choice for Your Teen
Research shows that youth are diverse, and that their dietary patterns drift further from what is recommended as they get older. The needs of teens depend on many factors, including:
- Calorie and nutrient needs
- Patterns of growth and development
- Physical activity
- Community support
For adolescents, nutrient-dense options should be made available such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. When possible and when budgets allow, organic foods can be incorporated as part of a healthy eating pattern.
It is important to allow teens to acquire independence in these choices as they age. This is best accomplished by helping to encourage and influence positive eating behaviors without enforcing rules, restrictions, or limitations on your teen.
Making organic food options available and accessible to your teen when you are able can allow them to develop the skills necessary to determine the costs and benefits for themselves.
What To Do If You Can’t Buy Organic Food for Your Teen?
If you can’t afford or find organic food there are still some habits you can adopt to make sure your teen is eating a healthy diet.
- Make sure to always wash your fruits and vegetables, whether or not they are organic
- Let go of the guilt- focus on buying any whole foods
Are There Any “Superfoods” For Teens?
Often, the most “super” thing teens can do for a healthier diet is to eat more fruits and vegetables, organic or not. However, incorporating nutrient-rich produce such as organic kale and spinach into a balanced diet can help increase nutrients and decrease exposure to harmful chemicals.
According to the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 40% of children and adolescents are overweight or have obesity, and the rate of obesity increases throughout these years.
Basically, this means that children and teens are particularly at risk for getting not enough nutrients and too many calories. Are superfoods the solution to a healthier diet?
What Are Superfoods?
Superfoods have come to describe foods that are rich in nutrients that offer health benefits. For example, these health benefits could include enhanced skin health, energy, performance, etc. To teens especially, foods marketed as “superfoods” can seem enticing. It’s like a magic pill to boost health.
Unlike “organic” the term “superfood” or the phrase “made with superfood ingredients” is not regulated or monitored. While a good portion of the product may be made of disease-preventing nutrients, the other percentage could be full of inflammation and disease-inducing compounds (such as added saturated fats and sugars).
While the following foods may offer exceptional nutrient profiles, it’s important to investigate food labels and ask questions of your dietitian if you are concerned about what they have to offer for your teen:
- Chia seeds
- Fermented foods
- Goji berries
- Green tea
- and many more
It’s important to note that any food eaten without moderation can be unhealthy. These foods can certainly be eaten as part of your teen’s well-balanced diet, but should not be eaten excessively or in substitution of other nourishing dishes.
Foods That Are a “Super” Source of Nutrients
You’ll notice that the following list is less specific than the one above. A truly healthy eating pattern includes a variety of healthful foods, not just a couple of standard choices. Incorporating foods within each of these categories can help your teen establish and maintain long-term healthy habits:
- Nuts and seeds (i.e. almonds, cashews, walnuts)
- Healthy fats (i.e. olive oil, avocados)
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy (i.e. low-fat yogurt)
- Seafood high in omega-3 fatty acids (i.e. salmon)
- Fresh produce (i.e. fruits and vegetables)
Nearly 4% of teens have hypertension, a significant factor for Cardiovascular Disease (CVD). In addition, hundreds of thousands of adolescents are struggling to manage type 2 diabetes. It’s important to encourage your teen to eat a healthy and balanced diet in their youth in order to prepare them for a lifetime of well-balanced wellness habits.
Achieving lower body fat and lower levels of “bad’ cholesterol are two significant goals set by the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This can be achieved for your teen through a healthy eating pattern, which can include choosing organic produce and working with a dietitian as needed.
What are the 10 Best Foods for a Teenager to Eat? The best foods for a teenager to eat are whole grains, fish, avocados, colorful vegetables, fruits, calcium and vitamin D foods, seeds and nuts, iron-rich foods, dairy, and eggs.
Is Organic Food Really Healthier? Studies say that overall, organic food is not any healthier than conventionally grown. There are still benefits from choosing organic foods such as less risk of contaminants and toxic metal, bacteria, and pesticide residues.
Is Organic the Best Choice for Parents? Organic foods can bring benefits and help parents feed their children a nutritious diet, but organic food isn’t essential for a healthy diet. Parents should get let go of any guilt if they can’t provide organic food for their family. Any produce is better than none.
How Do You Explain Organic Food to Kids? Organic foods are foods that are grown without any man-made chemicals to kill bugs and weeds.
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Harvard Medical School. Are organics worth it? Health.harvard.edu. Published December 2019.
Harvard Medical School. Clean eating: The good and the bad. Health.harvard.edu. Published October 2020.
Klemm S. Understanding Food Marketing Terms. Eatright.org. Published July 12, 2019.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Organic Foods: Are they safer? More nutritious? Mayoclinic.org. Accessed March 2021.
Morin A. Superfoods Teens Should Eat. Verywellhealth.com. Updated February 3, 2020.
The Nutrition Source. Superfoods or Superhype? Hsph.harvard.edu. Accessed March 2021.
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