In a perfect world, every food item you purchased would be 100 percent organic, hormone-free, grass-fed and free-range, but that's not financially practical for many people. Trade-offs must be made, and produce is an easy place to make them. Understand labeling before you shop: Food labeled "100% Organic" must be entirely organic; food labeled "Organic" must be 95 percent organic; and food labeled "Made With Organic Ingredients" must be 70 to 90 percent organic, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Organic foods have not been shown to be more nutritious than their nonorganic counterparts (see References 1, p 4), but they do have measurably lower amounts of pesticide residue. To be certified as organic, producers must comply with regulations that severely limit the use of additives and fortifiers, and their produce must be grown in a way that maintains the integrity and health of the soil and site ecosystem. (See References 2) Eating organic produce is a health issue and an environmental one.
The Dirty Dozen
The FDA and the USDA conducted a study between 2000 and 2008 to determine the average amount of pesticide residue on the most popular fruits and vegetables. The Dirty Dozen is a list of the most contaminated produce: apples, blueberries, cherries, grapes, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, celery, bell peppers, kale/collard greens, spinach and potatoes. According to the Environmental Working Group, you'll be exposed to 10 pesticides per day by eating nonorganic versions of these foods, so put these on your organic list for sure. (See References 3)
The Clean 15
The Clean 15 is the counter to the Dirty Dozen in that it is a list of produce that generally contains the least amount of pesticide residue. It includes cantaloupe, honeydew melon, watermelon, pineapple, kiwi, mango, avocado, corn, peas, onions, asparagus, sweet potatoes, cabbage and eggplant. If you can buy these foods organic and still stay within your budget, great. But if you have to draw the line somewhere, your risk of exposure to toxins is low even with the non-organic versions of these foods. In fact, asparagus, corn and onions contained no pesticide residue on at least 90 percent of the samples tested. (See References 3)
When in Doubt
Make a list of the Dirty Dozen to keep with you when you shop so you can buy the cleanest food possible. Failing that, unless you can buy everything organic, focus on foods with edible skin. Technically, pesticides can be absorbed by the plant during the growth cycle, but much of the residue is on the peel and doesn't wash off entirely. Notice that the entire Dirty Dozen list is comprised of foods that are eaten unpeeled, while the Clean 15 contains mostly foods whose edible portion is protected by a thick rind, pod or husk. If you can peel off the outer layer, it should be safe to eat non-organic versions.
Angela Brady has been writing since 1997. She works as a certified personal trainer, weight-loss consultant and sports nutritionist. A lifelong dancer and yoga devotee, she has competed in gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, softball and soccer. She is also an authority on sustainable design, having studied, practiced and written extensively on the subject.
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