Coming to terms with the “Dirty Dozen”

My winter csa box

My winter csa box

Honestly, in the not too distant past I thought people who bought organic produce were suckers.  Why pay more for something when you get the same thing for less?

I had bought into two myths about conventional produce.  Once the myths had been debunked I knew exactly why some conventional produce was VERY different than the more costly organic version and that it was different in a way that could actually hurt me and my family.  Here is what I learned.

MYTH 1: Pesticides are safe to eat.  If not, why would the USDA allow them to be sprayed on our food?

FACT: Various scientific studies have indicated some kind of relationship between pesticides exposure and negative health effects, including ADHD and lower IQ.  Read more about pesticide side effects on the Environmental Working Group’s FAQ: Do we know enough about the effect of pesticide on people?

MYTH 2: Washing or peeling fruits or vegetables removes any unhealthy pesticides.

FACT: Many fruits and vegetables retain pesticides even when washed thoroughly.  When the USDA tests fruits and vegetables for pesticides, they prepare them as they would normally be prepared for eating (see What if I wash and peel my fruit and vegetables?).  For example, celery and blueberries are washed, and kiwis and mangoes are peeled.  Even so, 68% of the produce tested positive for pesticides.

The Environmental Working Group uses data from the USDA’s pesticide tests to create a yearly list of the most pesticide laden fruits and vegetables as well as a list of the 15 “cleanest” fruits and vegetables.  According to the most recent data, the dirtiest fruits and vegetables AFTER washing or peeling are:

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Sweet bell peppers
  4. Peaches
  5. Strawberries
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes
  8. Spinach
  9. Lettuce
  10. Cucumbers
  11. Blueberries (domestic)
  12. Potatoes

Green beans and kale/greens are given a plus designation as they may contain pesticides that are particularly hazardous to human health.  Although 68% of all produce tested positive for pesticides, for the items that make it on to the dirty dozen, the percentage of contaminated items is as higher: as high as 100% for nectarines and 98% for apples.  See the full list along with clean 15 here.  Better yet, download a small PDF of the list to carry in your wallet when you grocery shop.

Think you are safe because you are buying prepared food instead of fresh produce?  Well, if baby food is contaminated, I can’t imagine the rest of the food supply is any better.  Recently, the USDA tested baby food for the first time and found that 92% of pear baby food contained one or more pesticides.  According to EWG’s website:

“Disturbingly, the pesticide iprodione, which EPA has categorized as a probable human carcinogen, was detected on three baby food pear samples. Iprodione is not registered with EPA for use on pears. Its presence on this popular baby food constitutes a violation of FDA regulations and the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”

SCARY STUFF!!!  You can read more about the baby food issues and get some practical tips here: Pesticides in your baby’s food: What you need to know

As you can imagine, I found this very upsetting, particularly because I had a baby who was just starting to eat solids.  Of course I wanted to feed him lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, but I did not want to expose him to toxic chemicals if I could help it. Thankfully, the EWG’s list of the Dirty Dozen helped me determine where to best spend my food dollars on organic food to reduce my family’s pesticide exposure. Now, through a combination of buying in season, purchasing a CSA, buying local “natural” or “pesticide-reduced” produce from farmers, buying certified organic items at the supermarket, and relying more heavily on items from the clean 15 list, I feel like I am better balancing the health and safety of the family with our food budget.

What do you think: Do you worry about pesticides in produce or prepared foods?  How do you balance this worry with the increased costs of organics?


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