Organic Food is, without a doubt, gaining popularity as a healthier option, at least when it comes to avoiding dangerous pesticides. The other reason people are turning to organics is to help protect the environment from dangerous pesticides, but it is more expensive, as much as 50% more expensive according to some research, so for most of us it’s a case of spending wisely on the organic foods that give the most benefits. Before we go into that though, let’s look at exactly what organic food is.
What is Organic Food?
Organic food must adhere to specific standards regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) where crops are grown without synthetic pesticides, artificial fertilizers, irradiation (a form of radiation used to kill bacteria), or biotechnology. Animals on organic farms eat organically grown feed, are not confined to pens all of the time, as they sometimes are on conventional farms, and are raised without antibiotics or synthetic growth hormones.
Is Organic Food Better For Me?
The reason that organic foods may have higher nutritional value than conventional food, according to some research, is that without pesticides and fertilizers, ie grown naturally as nature intended, plants boost their production of the vitamins and antioxidants (phytochemicals) that strengthen their resistance to bugs and weeds.
There is a huge amount of research, which on the whole supports the fact that pesticides in our food can be linked to everything from headaches to cancer to birth defects, although many experts maintain that the levels in conventional food are safe for most healthy adults. Even low-level pesticide exposure, however, can be significantly more toxic for fetuses and children, due to their undeveloped immune systems, and for pregnant women themselves, whose bodies are already under stress and strain during pregnancy, according to a report by the National Academy of Sciences.
Pesticide contamination is obviously more of a concern in fruit and vegetables than it is in meat and dairy products, although of course animals may consume some pesticides, depending on their diet. With meat and dairy, scientists are more concerned about the antibiotics being given to most farm animals; many are the same antibiotics humans rely on, and overuse of these drugs has already enabled bacteria to develop resistance to them, rendering them less effective in fighting infection, says Chuck Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at the Organic Center, a non-profit research organization. A similar concern has been voiced with farmed fish.
Is Organic Better for the Environment?
For sure, organic farming reduces pollutants in groundwater and creates richer soil that aids plant growth while reducing erosion and decreasing the amount of pesticides that can end up in your drinking glass. In some cities, pesticides in tap water have been measured at unsafe levels for weeks at a time, according to an analysis performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Furthermore, organic farming uses 50 percent less energy than non-organic farming methods in one 15-year study.
What’s The Best Way to Afford Organic?
The best policy is to buy local and organic whenever you can afford it, but if you can’t always afford it, the best advice is to follow the Environmental Working Group (EWG) list of what they call the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and the ‘Clean Fifteen’ and use this as a way of prioritising your shopping and keeping your grocery bill down.
Farmers’ markets are another good source of reasonably priced locally grown organic and conventional food. You can search for one in your area on localharvest.org. These are basically the fragile fruits and vegetables which often require more pesticides to fight off bugs compared to hardier produce.
Always look for the USDA seal on any kind of packaged food. For meat and dairy, this seal ensures you’re getting antibiotic- and hormone-free products. When buying meat or produce that isn’t packaged, look for a sign stating that it’s organic, or ask the person selling it.
The ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’
The 2016 Dirty Dozen list from EWG includes fruits and vegetables that have been contaminated by multiple pesticides and which have higher concentrations of pesticides. More than 98 percent of strawberries, peaches, nectarines and apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue. The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
Moving on to the Clean Fifteen list, topped by Avocado, less than one percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides, which is great news. No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticides and very few for more than one.
So, to prioritise your grocery shopping and to minimize the cost, it is recommended to buy the organic versions of the fruit and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list, whilst it is safe to assume that conventionally grown fruits and veggies on the Clean Fifteen list have very little pesticide contamination.
EWG’s analysis is based on results of more than 35,200 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. This year’s update found a total of 146 different pesticides on fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2014—residues that remain on produce even after items are washed and in some cases peeled.
Here are this year’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen rankings:
Sweet Bell Peppers
Sweet Peas (Frozen)
So, the best advice here is to buy organic fruit and vegetables wherever possible, especially for items listed on the Dirty Dozen list.
Other precautions such as washing and peeling fruits will help, but does not guarantee eradicating all traces of pesticide.
Some common sense can also be applied with other items which might not appear on the lists, such as bananas and oranges which have thicker skins and should therefore be less contaminated with pesticides.