How Safe Are Pesticides, Really?
Focus on Produce, Not Pesticides
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This week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the 2014 edition of their popular "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" produce shopping guides. If you're not familiar with these lists, the Dirty Dozen highlights the 12 "most pesticide-contaminated" fruits and vegetables, while the Clean 15 includes those with "the least amount of pesticide residues." The EWG suggests buying organic versions of items on the Dirty Dozen list whenever possible to limit pesticide exposure.
While I think these are lists are certainly useful tools for consumers, I think there are downsides as well. Above all, I am concerned that the most important message gets lost - eating more vegetables and fruits (organic or conventional) is one of the most important things you can do to improve your family's health, and the benefits of eating more produce outweigh any risks from pesticide exposure.
I'm certainly not the only one supporting this message. The EWG mirrors these sentiments right in their Dirty Dozen report (albeit near the end, in the FAQ section). They state, "The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables."
Further, it's important to understand the methodology behind the EWG report in order to interpret their findings. The group uses six different indicators from U.S. government data to assess pesticide risk. Five out of six of these indicators refer to the number of pesticides found on the produce items (in any detectable amount), while only one indicates the amount of pesticide, which is a better estimate of pesticide exposure. In other words, the guide isn't perfect.
Many families can't afford to buy only organic produce and other groceries, and there's absolutely no reason for these folks to feel guilty about feeding their family conventional produce. Eating a diet rich in vegetables and fruits does wonders for people of all ages.
If you can afford to shop organic only some of the time, that's great, too. Take advantage of sales, and look into frozen organic fruits and vegetables, which may be more affordable. If you're serious about buying organic produce, shop around to find out which stores in your area have the greatest variety and sales volume. These locations likely have the most competitive prices and the best quality selection, since their organic offerings are less likely to be ignored on store shelves for days on end. That means these fruits and veggies will last longer in your fridge and be less likely to go to waste. If you have the time and flexibility, it may make sense to shop for produce at one grocery store with a great organic selection and stock up on non-perishable staples at a more affordable supermarket.
If you typically buy conventional produce, washing it well in running water can help to remove some (but not all) pesticide residues. Removing the outermost layers from lettuces and cabbage and scrubbing harder produce items with a brush can also reduce levels.
Of course, there's still the question of local versus organic. I personally love the advantages of shopping at my local farmers' market, despite the fact that much of the produce isn't organic. Since there's far less transit time, locally grown fruits and vegetables are less susceptible to nutrient degradation - and release fewer transportation emissions into the environment. I feel good about supporting local farmers and - it may be a placebo effect in some cases - but everything just tastes so much better (even the garlic and onions!). I find that my husband and I eat a much more varied diet, are more creative in the kitchen, and are just plain more excited about eating healthy, produce-laden meals when we do our shopping at the green market. You can find farmers' markets in your area by searching localharvest.org.
Is shopping organic important to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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