When Going Organic Makes Sense

By Kjeld Petersen | July 01, 2008
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Potatoes

A diet comprised solely of organic foods is far beyond the reach of almost every consumer today. Even with great care and some restrictions, consumers looking to purchase only organic foods for health and environmental reasons can come up short just trying to find organic options. So why and when does it make sense—in dollars and time—to go organic above and beyond everything else?

The reasons consumers may choose to purchase organic foods are certainly not without contention. And the answers are not simple. Better health, lowering environmental wear-and-tear and better flavor are all claimed as reasons to choose organic foods. But are their claims true? Well…it depends.

Conventional growers state that there is no health benefit to eating organic foods. According to them, things like pesticides are reduced to government-approved levels of safety by simply washing and preparing foods properly. However, a fruit or vegetable with a thin protective skin or that is minimally prepared, must be suspected to contain higher levels of any chemical used in their production. Animals fed a conventional diet of antibiotics, growth hormones, additives and pesticides pose risks to consumers as well—even the EPA will agree with that.

Organic fruits and vegetables are also more nutrient-dense than their conventional counterparts—but this only holds true when comparing all other nutritional factors. The variety, ripeness when harvested, post-harvest handling, storage and the distance fruits and vegetables are transported all have bearing on nutrient density—and on flavor.

The environmental impact of conventional versus organic production is also arguable—until you look at the question on a deeper level. Most chemicals used in conventional row-crop production have oil as a major component of their formula or manufacturing process. The world-wide environmental impact from oil production, transportation, processing and manufacturing these chemicals is vast. And just because these chemicals are produced ‘somewhere else’ doesn’t lessen their impact— there is no ‘away’ when it comes to the environment. The chemical runoff from fields causes water contamination, plant and animal losses, and are directly related to human health.

So—you’re interested in going organic as much as possible for all of these reasons, and maybe more. Where do you start to use your spending power to buy organic? It’s simple—focus your organic dollars on the following foods that come with the highest amount of risk from the chemicals, additives or hormones used to produce them [the list is presented alphabetically—not in order of importance].

Apples—are exposed to high amounts of chemicals during their long ripening process. Scrubbing is not enough to eliminate chemical residue and completely and peeling a fruit or vegetable also strips away many of its beneficial nutrients. Kids love fruit, too—and are especially sensitive to chemicals.

Berries—all berry fruits are subjected to intense amounts of chemicals, have very thin protective skins and are typically not washed or prepared further before eating. Out-of-season berries also come from areas of the world where chemicals are less strictly controlled—raising the hazard.

Celery—has virtually no protective skin and acts like a straw— drawing chemicals up from the ground in addition to residuals from sprays. Washing has little benefit after any chemical has penetrated the food. Kiddies are at a higher risk here again, too—are celery sticks in their school lunch and, if so, are they organic?

Coffee—to put it simply, coffee is produced in parts of the world where few—if any—controls are in place concerning the use of chemicals. To increase yields, especially in low-lying coffee farms where most of the household drip brands originate from, the use of chemicals is rampant.

Grapes—table grapes, including the handy lunch-box-ready types, are sprayed with a laundry list of chemicals to prevent pests and molds. The thin skin of a grape allows these chemicals to enter the fruit making washing and peeling of no benefit.

Lettuce—had no protective skin, grows in direct contact with the ground, and a helluva lot of chemicals are used to produce it. Plus— everyone eats it. Want to go and check your salad bag in the fridge right now? We’ll wait while you toss it out. Just because it is ‘triple-washed’ for your protection doesn’t mean anything when it comes to these chemicals.

Milk—cows given hormones to increase milk production pass those hormones along and they cannot be removed from the milk through processing. These hormones have been linked to a list of problems— especially in children who consume more milk than any other part of our population. And hormones don’t disappear when milk is used in other things—like cheese, prepared foods, breads and other items.

Peaches—a thin skin, heavy amounts of chemicals and long ripening time on the tree add up to very high exposure levels. Unless they’re organic, look for a better fruit substitute like tangerines or oranges (they have thick skins and don’t require so many chemicals to grow).

Peanuts and Peanut Butter—peanuts are not true nuts which have hard shells to protect them. Peanuts get high doses of pesticides and fungicides to prevent aflatoxin which can occur in humid growing environments— like the South. Organic peanut butters are widely available and worth every penny.

Peppers—supercharged amounts of chemicals are used on peppers including sweet bells—all of which have a thin skin and are likely to absorb them. A large percentage of peppers are also grown outside of the U.S. and suffer from lackluster controls.

Potatoes—If we had to pick one thing from this list to insist that you buy organic—in addition to milk—it would be potatoes. They are one of the most chemically-contaminated crops grown, are terrible for the environment and are found in all kinds of foods. Just the amount of chemicals consumed in a bag of fries is mind-blowing—skip them unless you know where they come from. Ore-Ida? Nope, try again.

Tomatoes—again, lots of chemicals here. Tomatoes have a thin skin and are found in everything. Thankfully, organic tomatoes and products made with them—like pasta sauces and soups—are widely available and comparable in terms of price to conventional tomato products due to high demand.

The Bottom Line—if your family or your children eat (or drink) a lot of one of these foods, you should try to find and buy organic brands when shopping away from the farmers’ market. One of the benefits of farmers’ market shopping is that you can put more faith in what you can learn about the farmers and their production methods—which may be organic or even more stringent, than an Organic™ label. All you have to do is ask.


Source—the Environmental Working Group (ewg.org) Federal Pesticide Testing Data and Report is available online at ediblememphis.com.

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