My 10-month old daughter is a banana fanatic.
When I get home from the store with a new bunch, I try to discreetly put the yellow bundle in the fruit basket. She always catches me, perks up from whatever is her fascination of the moment (a piece of paper lately) and lets out a squeal. She then looks at me with those impossible-to-say-no-to eyes. Banana. Yes, she will get another banana. Like every other one, it will be organic.
I’ve long been interested in food—where it comes from, who raises it, what chemicals were (or weren’t) used to grow it. I grew up with a mom who penned Diet for a Small Planet—the “vegetarian bible,” as fans would describe it—and a father who battled chemical companies as a toxicologist, it was hard not to be. But it wasn’t until my second book, Grub: Ideas for an Urban Organic Kitchen, that I fully grasped why organic food is so important, especially for babies and young children.
The chemical industry likes to quote the 16th-century Swiss chemist Paracelsus: “All things are poisons… It is only the dose which makes a thing a poison.”
But Paracelsus didn’t get it exactly right. Timing of exposure can make the poison, too. At certain times in our lives –when we’re in our mother’s womb, when we’re infants and children, or when we’re elderly or our immune systems are depressed – even very low doses of certain chemicals, particularly endocrine disruptors, can wreak havoc.
But instead of taking into account these truths and embracing a precautionary approach, U.S. regulators historically used uniform tolerance levels which perilously ignored these big differences in susceptibility. Uniform tolerance levels also ignore type of exposure—by air, through skin or eyes—as well as frequency. Are you eating those bananas every morning, or once a leap year? Sorry Paracelsus, it isn’t just the dose.
Landmark research in the early 1990s proved that children and infants are more vulnerable to pesticide residues, in part because pound-for-pound of body weight children eat and drink more. When my daughter first started her banana love affair, a whole one was about as long as her arm. I pictured what that would mean if you and I ate that much banana and imagined that oversized banana chasing Woody Allen in Sleeper.
Children’s immune systems are also less developed and provide less protection than those of an adult. Plus, they eat more of certain kinds of fruits and vegetables—can anyone say, bananas?
When the Food Quality Protection Act was approved in 1996, we finally had national legislation that considered the unique vulnerabilities of children and infants and required, for the first time, additional protections for them. The Act also considered not only the potential for pesticides to cause cancer but the dangers from endocrine disruption, too, with potential impact on fertility, intelligence, and the immune system. But despite these regulatory strides, we are still a long way from a chemical-free cornucopia.
We’re also bound by another important factor: Yes, there are rules and regulations, warnings and labels and websites with all kinds of information on them. But keep in mind what drives all of this: Data. And the data the EPA uses to determine a chemical’s safety comes from the manufacturers themselves. Yes, you heard me right: From the guys trying to sell you the products with the chemical in it.
Now that I have a daughter, this analysis of policy is no longer abstract and far-removed; I think about it every day when I decide what my daughter eats – and especially at those moments when her tiny little hands reach for that yellow bundle she loves so much.