Organic Food, Pesticides, and Diabetes

Chances are, you’ve bought and eaten organic foods — as Amy Campbell noted in a blog entry here at a few years ago, about 70% of Americans buy organic foods on occasion, and about 25% of Americans buy them every week. But you may not know exactly what the “organic” label means (Campbell provides an explanation here), or what impact eating organic foods might have on your health. And, in fact, studies on the differences in health outcomes between conventional and organic foods have been somewhat limited.

But a new study involving young children may be helpful in showing some measurable differences between a conventional diet and an all-organic one. Published earlier this month in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, the study recruited 40 Mexican-American children between the ages of three and six. Half of these children lived in a rural agricultural area of California, while the other half lived in urban Oakland. Each child and family was selected based on their cultural background, following a mostly conventional (non-organic) diet, and — for the 20 rural children — having a family member who worked in agriculture. Throughout the 16-day study, parents collected a first-in-morning urine sample from their children using a special collection device, and stored it in a special refrigerator.


According to a New York Times article on the study, for the first four days, each family ate the food it normally eats. For the next seven days, the family ate organic versions of the same food, with requested foods and ingredients provided by the study organizers. (Most of these organic foods came from the same grocery store where the family usually shopped.) Finally, the family returned to its regular diet for the last five days of the study.

Researchers were interested in finding out what effect, if any, following an organic diet had on the levels of certain pesticide byproducts found in the children’s urine. A total of 594 urine samples were tested for 13 different pesticide byproducts. Most of these byproducts were largely absent from most samples, but six of them were found in more than half of urine samples. Out of these six most common byproducts, one dropped by 49%, and another by 40%, during the phase when families followed an organic diet. Another, the byproduct of an herbicide, dropped by 25%. Other byproducts also saw smaller drops during this phase, but given the small size of the study, these drops weren’t statistically significant (meaning they could have occurred simply by chance). Perhaps not surprisingly, the rural children tended to have slightly higher levels of most pesticide byproducts.

Of course, this study didn’t try — and wasn’t remotely long or large enough — to detect any effect following an organic diet might have on actual health outcomes, like the risk of developing certain diseases or of dying. Such a study would require thousands of participants, many of whom would need organic food provided for their families for years or even decades — so it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. But as we’ve noted before, there is strong evidence that exposure to pesticides can dramatically raise a person’s risk of developing Type 2 diabetes (among other health conditions, including cancer and heart disease). A key question is whether the amounts of pesticides found in the typical diet are enough to significantly raise the risk of any disease — and only a large-scale comparison of diets could answer that question.

What’s your take on this study — are you shocked that children can have measurable levels of pesticides in their bodies, or that an organic diet can reduce these levels by the amounts discovered? Do you worry about the impact pesticides might have, or have had, on your health? How often do you seek out organic foods? Why? Would you include more organic foods in your diet if you could afford to? Leave a comment below!