I first got serious about eating organic food when my food allergies went haywire. One of my doctors suggested I eat organic food because it would help him figure out if I had an allergy to the food itself, rather than a chemical that had been used on it. (Yes, this was an alternative healthcare practitioner, and yes, he was able to help.)
I obediently drove to Whole Foods. It was clean. Airy. I felt as if I’d been transported to a California-esque world of faux wholesomeness. And then, like many people before and after me, I promptly went into sticker shock.
I didn’t need to. Some conventional produce is pretty clean; other items are routinely found to contain dozens of different pesticides. You can get an awful lot of pesticides out of your diet by knowing which are which. Each year, the Environmental Working Group analyzes data from the Food and Drug Administration about the pesticide residue found on fruits and vegetables after they’ve been cleaned or peeled.
There are dramatic differences between the foods on the “Clean Fifteen” list – those with the smallest amounts of pesticide residue – and the Dirty Dozen, which have the most pesticides. Some 98% of conventional apples tested positive for pesticides, compared to just 10% of pineapples. Grapes, a member of the Dirty Dozen, tested positive for 64 pesticides, while nothing on the Clean Fifteen had more than five types of pesticides.
Together, the two lists can be a huge help in deciding where to spend your organic dollar.
The Clean Fifteen:
The Dirty Dozen:
And two special additions to the hall of shame:
Leafy greens, such as kale and collard greens
Alex Formuzis, a spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group, says that overall, “Conventional agriculture and its products look a little better than they used to. I’d give them a gentlemen’s C.”
Organophosphates, which have been associated with low birth weight, lower IQ, cancer, and ADHD, have been mostly phased out in favor of newer pesticides. Organophosphates still show up on leafy greens and green beans, which is why the EWG calls special attention to them.
Unfortunately, says Formuzis, “We don’t know if the newer [pesticides] are any better… They’ve done a little bit of testing on the newer pesticides, but not very much.” The Environmental Protection Agency, he says, doesn’t require any pre-market testing of new chemicals. He calls Bisphenol A (or BPA, commonly used to make plastics), “the poster child for this system gone awry.”
Which is not to say he’s pessimistic. “Over the years the price gap between organic and conventional has really shrunk,” he says. “Most of the industrial fruit and vegetable growers in California have both versions going.”
And a 2005 study by Alex Lu at Harvard’s School of Public Health has shown that after just 5 days on an organic diet, the levels of organophosphates in kids’ bodies dropped dramatically. Says Formuzis, “You can make a real difference just by shopping.” Just remember to make a list. — KW