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When to Spring for Organic
Organic lifestyle expert Eliza Sarasohn — author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living — tackles your questions on the ins and outs of living la vida organica.
Produce has long been the cornerstone of organics because farming is where the organic movement began. It’s also the food group in which the choices you make can have a significant health impact — produce, when grown conventionally, is some of the most chemically-doctored food out there.
There are hundreds of different chemicals — numbers range from 300 to 400, in fact — that are approved for treating fruit and vegetables. On any given day, the choices you make in this category could expose you to anywhere from two to 14 pesticides. We now know that many of these substances are problematic, linked to everything from cancer to birth defects.
But the good news is, not only is organic produce free of applied chemicals — studies are showing it’s innately more nutritious, and often more flavorful, too. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), avoiding the most contaminated vegetables can lower your pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent.
The EWG focuses on a number of public health and environmental issues — food health and safety among them. One of the most visible aspects of the EWG’s efforts in the food arena is its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, and in particular its list of the top 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables (dubbed the "Dirty Dozen"). The group developed the list by analyzing results collected from over 50,000 tests of pesticides on produce conducted by the USDA and the FDA between 2000 and 2005.
They’ve released several versions of the guide and the “Dirty Dozen” list, each reflecting another round of investigation and analysis. The fruits and vegetables listed below are from the most current list; they’re ranked from most to least contaminated. The EWG also assigns number scores; the numbers following each brief description are these scores:
1. Peaches. Peaches are tough to grow: insects love them as much as humans do and they find it easy to penetrate the thin skin on these juicy treats. They’re also prone to fungal and other diseases while on the tree, and are routinely sprayed with pesticides and fungicides during various stages of development. If insects can get through, so can these substances. According to the EWG, peaches had the highest likelihood of multiple pesticides on a single sample.
2. Apples. Also very attractive to insect pests, apples are typically sprayed with pesticides and petroleum-based horticultural oil (another insect control; it works by smothering them) at numerous times during their growing cycle. Varieties that are susceptible to fungal diseases are sprayed for that as well. Pesticide residues are difficult to remove as they tend to pool in apples’ dips and curves. Apple stems also wick substances into their cores.
3. Sweet bell peppers. The EWG found sweet bell peppers the vegetable with the most pesticides detected on a single sample, coming in at 11. European corn borers are their biggest threat, but far from the only one, which means that peppers are peppered with chemicals throughout their growing season. Thick skins offer protection from infiltration but also make it difficult to remove pesticide residue.
4. Celery. Celery is noted as a “heavy feeder,” which means it needs a lot of food and water when growing. If toxins are present in the soil it grows in and the water it’s given… well, you get the idea. This crunchy vegetable also tested as a significant source for pesticide residue, with the highest percentage of samples testing positive for pesticides. Tests also showed that pesticides concentrate in the bottom of bunches of celery stalks, where water collects.
5. Nectarines. Like pretty much all fruit crops, nectarines attract insects and are prone to fungal diseases. They’re also thin skinned, so anything used to treat them easily infiltrates their tissues.
6. Strawberries. Strawberries grow low to the ground and sometimes right on it, which makes them susceptible to soil-related issues. And, of course, insects love to munch on them. Growing strawberries conventionally means hitting them regularly with chemicals, including fertilizers, because the chemicals applied to strawberry fields to keep them safe from soil pathogens also kill the good things in soil that could feed them. Strawberries also absorb pesticides through their stalks.
7. Cherries. Like other tree fruits, cherries regularly come under attack by various insect pests, fungi, and diseases, and are sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, and horticultural oils. Some applications begin before the growing season starts.
8. Lettuce. Low-growing lettuce is prone to fungal and viral diseases caused by poor air circulation and excess moisture. Like celery, lettuce plants are heavy feeders, so pesticides in water are an issue as well.
9. Grapes (imported). Grapes in general can develop mildew and fungus problems and are routinely treated for both conditions. The EWG ranks imported grapes separately (and higher) than domestic grapes because they’re also often treated with methyl bromide to guard against fruit fly infestations.
10. Pears. Another thin-skinned fruit that insects love to munch on. They can be sprayed as many as nine times during the growing season for various insect pests.
11. Spinach. Like lettuce, it grows close to the ground, which makes it vulnerable to insect infestations and mildew. Tests also show that spinach plants uptake pesticides through their stalks.
12. Potatoes. Potatoes grow in the ground or just above it; soil-borne pathogens and ground-hugging insects are key issues here. Many potatoes are waxed before shipping, making pesticide residues difficult to remove.
Given the issues associated with these products, they’re high on the list of items to start with when switching to organic food, and especially so if you and your family eat a lot of them. If you can’t buy them organic, consider substituting other types of produce that rank lower on the list (tune in to next week’s blog for some good options).
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Organic Living by Eliza Sarasohn with Sonia Weiss.