What to Really Buy in Organic Food

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DSC_0702Shopping used to be so simple. It was just a matter of deciding what was for dinner, and throwing the ingredients into the cart. Then in 1962, Rachel Carson’s book , Silent Spring, hit the bookstores, and the way that we looked at agriculture, big chemical companies, the environment and the quality of our food supply would never be the same. Silent Spring began with a giant cry over the use of DDT, and mushroomed into a massive roar over the use of pesticides and herbicides, culminating in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. More that 50 years later, after a multitude of studies on the impact of chemicals on human health and a plethora of public education campaigns, every budget and environmentally conscious consumer must face the same challenging question while standing in the produce aisle, “conventional or organic?”

What’s the answer?

While there is no easy answer, there are resources to help. In 1991, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the Pesticide Data Program (PDP) to collect annual data on pesticide residues in food, both domestically and internationally grown, sold nationwide. They regularly sample both fresh and processed fruits and vegetables to determine whether they are within the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These products include: apples, bananas, blueberries (fresh and frozen), broccoli, carrots, celery, cherries (fresh and frozen), grape juice, green beans (fresh, frozen, and canned), nectarines, peaches, strawberries, summer squash, sweet corn (fresh and frozen), tomatoes, and watermelon. The samples are tested for 457 chemical products that may have been used to treat plants, trees and soils for bacteria, insects, rodents and fungi. As part of the testing, all fresh products are washed under a steady stream of water for 15-20 seconds, just as would be done at home.

Their Findings

The PDP found that 41% of the samples had no detectable pesticide residue, and that 99% had some residues from other chemicals, but were within the tolerance levels established by the EPA. From the consumer’s perspective, that’s 59% with pesticide residue, and 99% with other residues. It is important to understand, that according to the EPA website (www.epa.gov/pesticide-tolerances), these tolerances are determined by studies conducted by the pesticide and other chemical companies, and submitted for review. Furthermore, the EPA’s use of “conditional registrations” allows pesticides to be sold on the market before meeting required safety testing.

Enter the Non-profit Consumer Watchdogs

While there are many food and environmental watchdogs out there, one that is gaining increasing notice for their mission to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment, is the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Endorsed by Dr. Andrew Weil, Dr. Oz, the Huffington Post and Good Housekeeping, among others, the EWG has gained public visibility for their Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 shopper’s guidelines to pesticides in produce. They review the pesticide data released, and compile a list for the worst and least likely products to have chemical residues (www.ewg.org). While these list by no means cover all possible food choices, such as grains, dairy and non-tested produce, they provide a good start.

Dirty Dozen Plus

This list represents the products that everyone should definitely strive to buy organic (worst listed first):

Strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach,             tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, hot peppers, and        kale/Collard greens

Clean Fifteen

These produce were least likely to have chemical residues (best listed first):

Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, sweet peas frozen, onions, asparagus, mangos, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, and cauliflower

How to Make Organic Fit the Budget

Obviously buying organic is the best health option, but what if you are on a limited budget? Supermarkets and big box stores, like Sam’s Club and Costco, are increasing their own brand selections of organic products, in addition to name brands ones. The best is to compare your prices if food chains are your only shopping option, to know what is truly a bargain. In addition to the super stores, there are co-ops, farmers markets and farm stands, with the latter being the most affordable as there’s no middleman taking a cut of the profits. The closer you are to the food source, the more likely you will be able to find out how the produce was raised. The greatest assurance of all is to grow your own. Only you will know with absolute certainty of how the produce was raised. Even those living in apartments can grow vegetables, herbs and even fruit in containers. As with any other item you buy in the store, look for sales and use coupons when available. Also consider buying in bulk. Most fruits and vegetables can be frozen or canned, and you can even share the cost and produce amongst family and friends. Plan your menus ahead, so that you can maximize the organic products you buy while minimizing waste.

But what if you simply can’t afford to buy organic all the time?

There are ways to minimize your exposure when it’s simply not possible to buy organic. The most important step to take is to wash your produce thoroughly with running tap water, and to scrub firm produce with a brush. Also be sure to clean in the crevices. You do not need to use soap, detergents or special washes, as they are not any more effective than running water. This is actually important to do with organic products as well, as they may have come into contact with contaminants from conventionally raised produce in the supermarket. Be sure to wash everything thoroughly even if you are going to remove the peel. Also, try to buy produce that hasn’t been waxed, as the wax can trap chemicals under and in its seal. Lastly, do not use the outer leaves of vegetables, such as lettuce and cabbage.

One Final Note

In 1958, Rachel Carson, who may be truly considered as the first godmother of the modern organic movement, began her research because birds were dying on her property following the spraying of DDT for mosquitoes. During the writing of Silent Spring, she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, and underwent a mastectomy and radiation treatment. The banning of the acutely toxic DDT in 1972 for agriculture did not include its use to kill mosquitos in malaria areas. Although DDT was banned by most developed nations by the 1980s, poorer countries overwhelmed by malaria continued its use. In 2010, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants listed DDT as one of the 21 persistent organic pollutants to need to be phased out. While DDT half-life can range up to 15 years, it is still being detected in EPA studies today.