Fresh Fruits and Vegetables: Should You Buy Organic?
Sweet strawberries, juicy watermelons and ripe peaches are all heralds of the summer season. To celebrate these healthy foods, June is National Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Month.
Fruits and vegetables are delicious elements of our diets, and they provide vital vitamins and nutrients. However, some varieties can contain pesticide residues that are detrimental to public health.
Pesticides are chemicals used to eliminate or control a myriad of agricultural pests that can damage crops, harm livestock and reduce farm productivity. These pests include insects, rodents, weeds and molds. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, over one billion tons of pesticides are used in the United States annually, accounting for 22 percent of the estimated 5.2 billion pounds of pesticides used worldwide each year. The EPA, the Food and Drug Administration and the US Department of Agriculture regulate the use of many pesticides. Although the use of particular pesticides has been restricted, some of their chemicals are still quite persistent in the environment and still pollute the fruits and vegetables cultivated in contaminated soil.
Pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables are a cause for concern for three reasons.
First, these chemicals are easily absorbed into the fruits and vegetables that we consume. In fact, government tests found that detectable pesticide residues were present on 67 percent of food samples even after the foods had been washed or peeled.
Second, a significant section of the population is exposed to pesticides, which are easily absorbed into the body. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national bio-monitoring program detected pesticides in the organ systems of 96 percent of a sample of 5,000 Americans.
Finally, the presence of pesticide residues in the body has been associated with neurological disorders, cancer, hormone disruption and skin, eye and lung irritation. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects. A type of these chemicals known as organophosphate pesticides can adversely affect their IQ and brain development.
Individuals can, however, reduce their exposure to pesticides and curtail their negative effects. The Environmental Working Group – an environmental health research and advocacy agency – has estimated that individuals can reduce their pesticide exposure by as much as 80 percent by consuming organic versions of certain fruits and vegetables.
The EWG has developed The Shopper’s Guide to educate individuals about the pesticides in fruits and vegetables. To create the guide, the EWG analyzed pesticide residue information from the USDA and the FDA. The agency then used six of these measures to calculate a composite score for each fruit and vegetable in the study. In The Shopper’s Guide, low scores indicate higher levels of pesticide residues while high scores indicate lower levels of pesticide residues.
THE DIRTY DOZEN
The Dirty Dozen is the EWG’s list of the produce that is most commonly contaminated with pesticide residues. To avoid exposure to these chemicals, consumers should purchase these foods organically, if possible.
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Sweet bell peppers
Consumers should also purchase kale, collard greens and summer squash organically because even though they do not meet the traditional criteria for inclusion in The Dirty Dozen, these foods can be commonly contaminated with pesticides that are exceptionally detrimental to the nervous system. Individuals who want to avoid Genetically Modified Organisms or GMOs should also purchase organic fruits and vegetables.
THE CLEAN FIFTEEN
The Clean Fifteen is a list of the produce that is least commonly contaminated with pesticide residues.
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Sweet potatoes
The Dirty Dozen app is also available for Apple products.
CONSIDERATIONS FOR PURCHASING ORGANIC FOODS
Generally, organic foods are healthier for the public and for the environment because they contain no pesticides. They promote environmentally sound farming practices that minimize soil erosion, respect workers, conserve energy, protect water quality and support animal welfare. Organic foods also offer fresher flavors, and they are consistently affordable.
The term organic can be green-washed, though. Organic is a designation used by the USDA National Organic Program to certify foods that are produced with no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers, genetic engineering or radiation. To ensure the purchase of organic foods, consumers should buy products labeled with the USDA Organic seal. On fruits, vegetables and other whole foods such as meats and eggs, the official USDA Organic seal indicates that the product is certified to be truly organic in accordance with NOP standards. For foods with multiple ingredients, a classification system is used to indicate the use of organic elements. Foods with no USDA seal may or may not be organic because organic labeling is voluntary for the producer.