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When the government tests for chemicals you carry around in your body, it doesn’t check for the pesticides most commonly found on fruits and vegetables sold in grocery stores. Trace amounts of agricultural chemicals or “pesticide residue” may show up on many fruits and vegetables grown with conventional farming techniques. Some of the most contaminated produce includes seasonal favourites like peaches, apples, nectarines and strawberries. Several fungicides, insecticides and herbicides used to grow those crops show up repeatedly on tests. Those pesticides are being consumed in small doses by a wide amount of the population.
Whether you accumulate in your body and whether they cause you any harm are questions that aren’t being asked. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted several studies and found that dozens of industrial chemicals can be found in your body’s tissues, blood or urine. But the CDC looks for relatively few pesticides, and fewer of the pesticides most commonly found on fruits and vegetables. Just because they’re not looking for them or finding them doesn’t mean they’re not causing problems.
The Environmental Working Group published its latest list of fruits and vegetables most and least likely to have pesticide residues and these are not on the CDC’s list of chemicals it looks for. Experts caution that fear of pesticide residue should not deter people from eating fruits and vegetables. The level of exposure to pesticides on food is less than 10,000 times the level needed to make animals show a noticeable response in laboratory tests.
If you look at a lot of food safety risks, pesticides are pretty low on the list of causes, in terms of risk. Most of the more modern pesticides found as residue break down quickly so would be unlikely to show up in body studies.
The concern over pesticide residue has helped boost the organic movement, which in turn has paid dividends for the environment and farm workers. Pesticide residue has enough of an unknown that avoiding exposure is a wise choice. Choose organic varieties when possible, and when not possible, choose those varieties that tend to have less residue. Those choices are particularly important for pregnant women and children.
Buying 100% organic can be expensive, so the solution is to focus on those foods with the highest amounts of pesticides, chemicals, additives and hormones and buying organic versions whenever possible. Following is a list of foods that you should try to find organic whenever possible.
Meat contains higher levels of pesticides than any of the plant foods. Pesticides end up in the environment, then in the animal, and then in you.
The fat in dairy products is another haven for pesticides, and bovine growth hormones. These get passed on to you through commercial milk, cheese, and butter. Organic dairies do not use chemicals or growth hormones like rBGH(recombinant bovine growth hormone) or the genetically engineered growth hormone known as recombinant bovine somatotropin rBST.
Many of the beans you buy are grown in countries that don’t regulate the use of chemicals and pesticides. Look for the Fair Trade Certified label on the coffee as it will give you some assurance that chemicals and pesticides were not used on the plants. It will also mean that fair prices were paid for the end product in support of the farm that supplied the coffee, and that the farm workers are treated fairly.
Forty-five different pesticides are regularly applied to these delicately skinned fruits in conventional orchards. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Watermelon, tangerines, oranges, and grapefruit.
Scrubbing and peeling a fruit doesn’t eliminate chemical residue completely so it’s best to buy organic when it comes to apples. Organic apples taste sweeter than conventionally grown, too. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Watermelon, bananas, and tangerines.
Sweet Bell Peppers
Peppers have thin skins that don’t offer much of a barrier to pesticides. They’re one of the most heavily sprayed vegetables out there and may be coated with nearly 40 commonly used pesticides meant to keep them insect-free. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Green peas, broccoli, and cabbage.
Celery has no protective skin, which makes it almost impossible to wash off the twenty-nine different chemicals that are used on conventional crops. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Broccoli, radishes, and onions.
On average, strawberries receive a dose of up to 500 pounds of pesticides per acre. If you buy strawberries out of season, they’re most likely imported from countries that use less-than-stringent regulations for pesticide use. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Blueberries, kiwi, and pineapples.
Leafy greens are frequently contaminated with what are considered the most potent pesticides used on food. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically. Vineyards can be sprayed with 35 different pesticides during different growth periods during the season and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape’s permeable thin skin. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Blueberries, kiwi, and raspberries.
America’s popular spud ranks highest for pesticide residue. It may also be tainted by fungicides added to the soil for growing. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Eggplant or cabbage.
The standard regimen of pesticides used on conventionally raised tomatoes numbers 30. Their easily punctured skins are no match for chemicals that will eventually permeate the whole tomato. Can’t find organic? Safe alternatives: Green peas, broccoli, and asparagus.
If the cost of buying all organics isn’t within your budget, conventionally grown foods from the list below are fruits and vegetables that have been found to retain the least amount of pesticide residue so you can save your money to buy the other more expensive organic foods.
Look for firm spears with bright green or purplish compact tips. Plan on a 1/2 pound per person and for more uniform cooking, select spears of a similar thickness. Store in the refrigerator vegetable crisper and give them a good rinse before using (even if you’re going to boil them.)
Look for avocados that are still somewhat unripe and firm to the squeeze; they’ll ripen nicely on your kitchen countertop in a couple of days. Store at room temperature. Although you’ll be using only the meat of the avocado, it’s always a good idea to rinse them before you slice them open.
There are basically 3 stages to a ripening banana. You’ll want to choose them according to how you’re going to use them. Chosen green, where the peel is pale yellow and the tips are green, their taste will be somewhat tart. These work best for frying or baking in a pie. Chosen at their next stage of ripeness where the peel is mostly all yellow, the pulp will still be firm but their starch content will have started to turn to sugar. These also work well in pies and tarts. In the last stage of ripeness, the skins will show signs of brown spots with the peel a deeper yellow color. This is when they’re sweetest and work well mashed and added to baked goods like banana bread recipes. Store at room temperature. If they’re unripe, you can place them in a brown plastic bag to ripen. Give the bananas a quick rinse and dry before you peel them.
Look for tightly bunched flower buds on the broccoli stalks that are immature. In other words, try not to buy them if their little yellow flowers have opened. Color-wise, the broccoli should be deep green and the stalks should be firm and not rubbery. Before use, wash in a cool water bath and change the water a couple of times in the process. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Look for cabbage heads whose leaves are tight and be sure the head is heavy for its type and firm. For most cabbage varieties, you’ll want to make sure their outer leaves are shiny and crisp. Savoy is the exception to this rule as it forms a looser head and the leaves grow crinkly naturally. You’ll want to avoid any with leaves that show signs of yellowing. Bok choy (not to be confused with “Chinese cabbage”) should have deep green leaves with their stems a crisp-looking white. Discard the outer leaves of a cabbage before using. You can wash and spin most cabbage leaves just like you do salad greens. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Here’s where your nose plays an important part when choosing fresh fruit. Sniff out kiwis that smell good. They should be plump, and yield to a squeeze like that of a ripe pear. Steer clear from those with moist areas on their surface or have any skin bruising. If unripe kiwi are all that are available, simply take them home and place them in a paper bag at room temperature with other fruits that need more time, such as bananas or pears. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Depending on the variety of melon, look for those that are bright in colors such as red, yellow, or orange. It should have a distinctive “fruity” smell. If there’s no ripe fruit aroma, steer clear. Mangoes should be slightly firm but yield to your touch somewhat as the softer the mango, usually the sweeter it is. If the mango is too soft, there’s a good chance that it will be rotten inside. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Look for onions that are firm, have a distinctive “oniony” smell that’s not overpowering, and show no visible signs of damage or soft spots. Store in a cool dry place or in the refrigerator.
Papaya colors usually range between yellow and green. Look for those that are slightly soft and show no signs of bruising or appear shriveled. If they’re not fully ripened, you can toss them in the brown bag along with your under ripened kiwi fruit, peaches, and pears. Once they’re ripened, store in the refrigerator crisper.
Although tempting, this is one fruit that you won’t want to choose if it has a strong, sweet smell. This usually means that the pineapple is overripe and has even begun to ferment. Like all other fruits, avoid any that have soft spots or in the case of a pineapple, damage to the rind. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Here are a few more things to think about.
1: Organic food is always better for the environment: Organics don’t contaminate soil and groundwater with pesticides and chemicals like regular farming does, but there’s a surprising downside… since organic farming is only about half as productive as conventional farming, it requires far more land to produce the same amount of food. Modern high-yield farming has saved 15 million square miles of wildlife habitat, and that if the world switched to organic farming, we’d need to cut down 10 million square miles of forest. Less-productive farming could also lead to even less food for the world’s undernourished.
2: Organics are more nutritious: Studies keep flip-flopping on this but one study found more vitamin C in organic tomatoes than in conventional ones; another found more cancer-fighting flavonoids in organic corn and strawberries. But other studies haven’t found organics to have any nutritional edge. What makes the biggest difference in nutrients is how long produce sits on the shelf. Spinach, for instance, loses about half of its folate within a week.
3: Organics taste better: Nobody has been able to tell the difference except in one study of apples, where organics came out ahead. To get raspberries that taste raspberrier, buy produce that’s locally grown, is in season, and hasn’t been sitting on the shelf too long. Let’s face it: Nothing is at its best when it’s flown halfway around the world and waxed, then has to spend a week in the grocery store.
4: You don’t have to be careful about washing organics: All produce, whether purchased from a grocery store or your local organic farm, is susceptible to nasty bacteria, such as E. coli. Soil and runoff water that’s contaminated with E. coli-harboring animal poop can get onto produce, particularly melons, lettuce, sprouts, tomatoes, spinach, and green onions, since they grow close to the ground. Your best defense is to wash everything thoroughly under running water.
5: When you buy organic you are supporting small farmers and saving the environment: General Mills owns the Cascadian Farms brand, Kraft owns Back to Nature and Boca Burger, and Kellogg’s owns Morningstar Farms, to name a few conglomerates basking in organics’ glow (and dough). And with such high demand (in the past year, the market for organic milk outstripped the supply by 10 percent), these giant companies are importing organic ingredients as cheaply as possible, often from other countries. Whole Foods sold roughly $1 billion in produce last year; only about 16 percent was locally grown. So with all the CO2 spent in transport, some organics have questionable eco-virtues.
6: Organics are better for you: Not if it’s organic chips, organic soda, or organic cookies. Cane sugar is still sugar and fried chips are still fried, no matter what kind of compost was or wasn’t heaped onto the potatoes. Sorry!
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