There was a time when Indian cooking was a great nutrition source for a pregnancy diet. We knew that if we ate our greens and our lauki, increased our whole-grain intake through rotis and dalia and kept a healthy intake of dairy products going, we wouldn’t have much to worry about.
However, in the last decade or so, our lifestyles have changed dramatically. With multiple incomes in single households, we travel more and we’re a lot more adventurous with inviting new foods and new experiences into our lives. We’re definitely eating out a lot more.
Additionally, conventional farming techniques might be placing our food safety at risk.
The reason is simply that the food we eat is grown and processed with so many fertilizers, chemicals, pesticides and preservatives, it’s increasingly difficult to say with any certainty whether what we’re eating is safe for consumption!
All of this translates to little or no control over food quality, inside our homes or outside. Switching to organic food, and especially during pregnancy when you’re closely monitoring your diet, can be quite tempting.
What is organic food?
Food receives its organic classification when it is grown or produced without the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones. Organic meat receives that classification when the livestock is grown without the presence of animal by-products or pesticides in the feed and is given free access to fresh air, movement and sunlight.
Harmful effects of pesticides
Farmers are under pressures to increase yields and safeguard their crops by using fertilizers and pesticides. While pesticides substantially reduce the risk of crop damage, studies establish a clear relation between sustained consumption of pesticides and their harmful effects on the human body.
Dr. David Bellinger, a professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, has found that exposure to organophosphates, a commonly used pesticide, during pregnancy is related to lower IQ levels in children (see The Toxins that Threaten our Brains in The Atlantic). In India, death of school children has been linked to high levels of organophosphates in lunch served as part of the Mid-Day Scheme!
Since, by definition, organic foods are grown without the use of pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics or growth hormones, incorporating organic produce into your pregnancy diet could reduce exposure to organophosphates by 80 to 90 percent.
Foods with organophosphate pesticides
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organisation based out of Washington, D.C. that undertakes the research and study of environmentally sound practices. The EWG found that pesticide levels in conventionally grown vegetables are particularly high in:
- Capsicum (Bell peppers)
You can download the full guide here: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/guide.php
We need to keep in mind that this study was done in the US. However, given lax surveillance of pesticide levels in foods in India, we can expect the situation in India to be worse than in the US.
Exposure to Oxytocin and Calcium Carbide
Organophosphates are not the only chemicals that pose a danger to healthy eating. Very often, fruits and vegetables are treated with Calcium Carbide, a source of acetylene gas use to speed up the ripening process.
Calcium Carbide‘s use in ripening fruits can lead to health problems like food poisoning and ulcers.
Farmers also use Oxytocin, a readily available hormone, to make their produce look more plump and fresh so it will sell faster. It is also used by dairy farmers to increase the production of milk. In its natural form, oxytocin is a reproductive hormone.
Although the Indian government has banned Oxytocin and Calcium Carbide in food production, their use continues unchecked.
Watch the video below to learn more about food tampering in India.
3 obstacles getting in the way of adopting organic food
The good news is that we know about the harmful effects of pesticides and other additives used in food production, so we can actively stay away from them.
But we run into a few obstacles as well.
1. Lack of clear evidence
What’s missing right now from this conversation is the lack of clear evidence in favour of organic food.
While we know that pesticides might make conventionally grown food unsafe, what we don’t know for sure just yet is whether food grown and produced organically is a hundred percent safe or more nutritious than conventionally grown food.
A review comparing the health effects of organic versus conventional foods reached the following conclusion:
The published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
But newer studies suggest that organic foods may have up to 60% more antioxidants as compared with conventionally grown crops
2. Organic food is expensive
The price of organic food can be a significant deterrent for people interested in making the switch. When compared with normal market rates for fruits and vegetables, the cost of organic food can be nearly 50% higher, making it seem quite out of reach for middle-class families.
3. Organic food is not readily available
As of now, finding organic food retailers or restaurants is not an easy task in Delhi. Depending on where you live, the search requires considerable effort and travel which can translate to a lot of expense but some online stores are helping change the situation.
Pregnancy diet and organic foods – the bottom line
Despite conflicting evidence to support organic eating, we still feel it’s a better switch to make and even more so for pregnant women.
Pregnancy is one of the most vulnerable periods of life for the developing baby. Because the developing baby receives nutrition from the mother, any pesticides in her system may get transferred to the baby and place its health and development at risk.
So why take a risk that can be avoided by choosing organic?
While eating a 100% organic diet may not be practical, you could take small steps towards it by switching to organic milk, grains, pulses, or fruit and slowly expanding that list.
By choosing organic foods you might just improve the health of your child.
This article has been written with Dr. Anita Sabherwal Anand, Consultant, Obstetrician-Gynecologist at Sitaram Bhartia Hospital in South Delhi. Dr. Anita is a highly qualified gynecologist with 20+ years of experience who is trusted by low-risk and high-risk mothers alike for her guidance on having a healthy pregnancy and delivery.
MBBS, Lady Hardinge Medical College, University of Delhi (1992); MD (Obstetrics & Gynaecology), Lady Hardinge Medical College, University of Delhi (1997); DNB Secondary (Obstetrics & Gynaecology), National Board of Medical Education, New Delhi (1999)
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