Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Organic or Not? How to Prioritize When on a Budget

I'm often asked if the produce we buy always has to be organic. Let's face it, organic usually costs more than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables and we don't all have a budget that can manage strictly organic.

A few years ago I interviewed Urvashi Rangan, project director of Consumer Reports' Greenerchoices.org. The environmental health scientist believes that it's a matter of prioritizing. The site provides a number of interesting articles on food products related to health, safety, and other food-related news.



Rangan pointed out that berries, for instance, tend to have very high levels of pesticides. "So organic can get you a lot of value," she said. "On the other hand if you're weighing the difference between buying conventional or organic avocados, the thick skin and the fact that avocados may not require as many pesticides to produce means there's not as great a health value in buying organic."


She also noted that parents with young children should be aware that organic food in their children's diet can make a significant different in lowering the amount of pesticide residue they consume. "They're neurotoxins and when they build up in the body, even at low levels, for a child's developing brain and neurosystem, reducing the amount of these agents is a much healthier way to go."

All this, of course, gets back to the main issue. What fruits and vegetables pose the most challenges where pesticides are concerned and which ones are less problematic?

There are two websites consumers should pay attention to. The first is a list put out by the Environmental Working Group. This list ranks 53 fruits and vegetables based on pesticide residue data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The lower the number, the more pesticides. So, you have apples, celery, strawberry, peaches, and spinach in the top five. Asparagus, avocado, pineapples, sweet corn, and onions are at the bottom--meaning they have the fewest amount of pesticides. Less than one percent of sampled onions, for instance, were found to have any pesticide residue.

The EWG's executive summary is the most direct, with a list of what to buy organic and what is lowest in pesticides. For a quick reference, this is quite useful. The group is also developing an iPhone app.

Another group doing some fascinating work in this arena is the Pesticide Action Network. Here you'll learn that 888 million pounds of pesticides are applied annually in the U.S., averaging three pounds per person. So, what's on your food? Go to the site and select a product and click. A page will open listing how many pesticide residues are found on that product, what they are and the toxicity risks to humans and the environment. So, click on green beans, for instance, and you'll find it has 44 pesticide residues--chemical names that are pretty unpronounceable. Some, like carbendazim, are suspected hormone disrupters. Others like diazinon, hit that along with bee toxins, developmental or reproductive toxins, and neurotoxins.


"We have found that folks are grateful to see which pesticides are linked to particular health threats--so the brain, DNA, child, and bee icons have been helpful points of orientation/interpretation," explained Heather Pilatic, PAN's spokeswoman. "In sum, pesticides are enormously variable in their toxicity. That's why we cross-referenced the residue data with toxicological info from www.pesticideinfo.org."

 
PAN also has an iPhone app. And, like EWG, they have a quick and easy top 10 list--with research caveats.

Altogether, these are a good start for consumers who are trying to eat purer food and want to better identify how what they buy will impact their bodies.

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