Organic produce – it’s a growing industry and sometimes a controversial topic. Books could be (and probably have been) written on organic products and why to choose or not choose them. This post is a very light overview on organic produce, focusing mainly on pesticides. It is by no means an exhaustive look into it all.
About Organic Farming
In general, organic farming includes techniques designed to encourage soil and water conservation while reducing pollution. Such practices include crop rotation and mulching to manage weeds.
The USDA is the certifying agency for organic food labeling. They determine the regulations surrounding organic farming and what practices allow a farm to label their produce as organic.
The nutrition for organic and conventional produce are roughly the same. However, consuming organic foods may reduce your exposure to total amount of pesticide residues.
Pesticides are used to protect crops from diseases, molds, and insects. Synthetic man-made pesticides are used on conventionally-grown produce whereas “natural” pesticides are used on organic produce. Residues from these pesticides remain on produce even after normal rinsing and cleansing.
Organic or conventional, pesticides are by definition poisons, and what makes a poison is the dose. Even benign things like water can be deadly when too much is consumed. The EPA sets tolerance levels for pesticides. They consider their tolerance levels cautious and safe.
Concerns With Pesticides
Tolerance levels are calculated for an individual pesticide. Unfortunately, multiple different pesticides are found on our foods. The additive effects of these pesticides have not been studied to my knowledge.
Another concern with pesticides has to do with the idea that perhaps even low-level chronic exposure to them may alter the populations of our gut microbes that we discussed yesterday.
This study suggests that in test tubes pathogenic bacteria are highly resistant to glyphosate (a conventional pesticide) while good bacteria are moderately to highly susceptible to that same pesticide. In other words, glyphosate kills good bacteria while allowing not-so-good bacteria to survive. Keep in mind that inside a test tube and inside a body are completely different environments. Perhaps glyphosate reacts differently inside our bodies.
More research needs to be done to substantiate a link between consuming pesticides and the health of our gut microbiomes. Even so, the premise behind the idea is plausible.
There is also some merit in considering the effects of low-level consumptions of pesticide during different developmental ages. Sometimes a dose of a poison is more toxic during certain developmental windows. For example, there has been research linking higher pesticide levels in a pregnant mother to a subsequent decrease in that child’s IQ at the age of 7.
In addition to theoretical concerns, new research released just days ago suggests glyphosate may cause liver disease in rats.
The EPA and FDA stress that our food is safe and has never been safer. And a case can be made for not being concerned by pesticide intake. Nonetheless, many people remain concerned about pesticide intake for reasons mentioned above and more.
Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen
For those who are concerned, the Environmental Working Group determines a dirty dozen and a clean fifteen list each year. They make these lists using conventional pesticide residue data from the USDA.
The Dirty Dozen lists conventional produce with higher levels of conventional pesticide residues. The idea is that purchasing these items as organic will reduce overall pesticide residue intake.
The Clean Fifteen lists conventional produce with lower levels of conventional pesticide residues. Buying these items as organic will not have as great an effect on lowering your overall pesticide residue intake.
The 2016 Dirty Dozen includes:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
The 2016 Clean Fifteen include:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas, frozen
- Honeydew melon
Additional Tips to Reduce Pesticide Residue Consumption
Organic and conventional produce have pesticide residues. So here are some tips directly from the National Pesticide Information Center to reduce your consumption of pesticide residue:
- First, eat a variety of fruits and vegetables to minimize the potential of increased exposure to a single pesticide.
- Thoroughly wash all produce, even that which is labeled organic and that which you plan to peel.
- Wash your produce under running water rather than soaking or dunking it.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel when possible.
- Scrub firm fruits and vegetables, like melons and root vegetables.
- Discard the outer layer of leafy vegetables, such as lettuce or cabbage.
- Peel fruits and vegetables when possible.
- Trim fat and skin from meat, poultry, and fish to minimize pesticide residue that may accumulate in the fat.
Perhaps you feel that organic is an option you’d like to consider but you are concerned about price. I have good news!
Although organic is usually more expensive, it is not always more expensive. And often the price difference is negligible. You should price check options in your area. To get the biggest bang for your buck, consider choosing organic only for items on the dirty dozen.
Eat Your Veggies Anyway
Both conventional and organic farming are big businesses nowadays. Personally, I have concerns about mass produced foods as well as trust issues with government oversight. Even so I feel confident that the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweigh any risks associated with eating them. So be sure to eat your fruits and vegetables whether you choose conventional or organic!
If you are concerned with what’s going on with your food, you have two other options besides the grocery store.
The first of which is to grow your own. You’ll know what sorts of chemicals you’ve put on your plants. And, more importantly in my opinion, nothing in the grocery store tastes as good as homegrown anyway.
Of course, growing your own is not a viable option for everyone. The next best thing would be to talk to your local farmers and buy local. Ask questions about their products, farming methods, and farming practices. Check what they tell you with your own research, keeping in mind natural does not always mean safe.
Be your own advocate! That goes for eating and everything else in life 🙂