According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization in Washington , D.C. , eating the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables exposes consumers to about 20 pesticides a day on average. Eating the 12 least contaminated foods reduces pesticide exposure to about two pesticides a day. EWG says reducing pesticide exposure is smart since the cumulative effect of even low-level, multiple exposures to pesticides could be quite serious. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency believes that infants and children may be especially sensitive to health risks posed by pesticides because their internal organs are still developing and maturing. Plus, in relation to their body weight, infants and children eat and drink more than adults, possibly increasing their exposure to pesticides in food and water .
Some fruits and vegetables are more likely than others to retain pesticides after they are harvested. Given that organic foods can be more expensive than those grown using pesticides, Environmental Working Group and other organizations say consumers who want to economize and still shop organically should focus their shopping dollars on the following produce first. If organic is not available, wash and peel (where possible) the produce before eating it, or choose fruits and veggies that are consistently less contaminated.
Organic Food Purchase Priorities
You can get EWG's wallet-size advisory guide to take with you when you shop here.
Meat and Dairy
Buying organic meat and dairy products is also becoming an increasing priority for many consumers. Antibiotics that are used to treat animals may promote antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria in humans. Cows fattened on animal feed made with parts from dead animal parts run the risk of contracting mad cow disease, which could be passed along to people. Milk from cows treated with bovine growth hormone may increase some cancer risks. Most grocery stores carry at least one brand of organic milk, if not more. Organic meat is more difficult to come by. Consumers Union recommends avoiding processed meats such as hot dogs and preground hamburger, among other steps, in When Buying Organic Pays (and Doesn't). Also see Meat, Seafood, Poultry here.
What does "organic" mean?
According to USDA's 2002 Organic Standards, organic food producers cannot use pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, hormones, antibiotics, ionizing radiation, or biotechnology. Instead, farmers must "emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations." USDA provides a seal so farmers can let consumers know that at least 95% of the ingredients in their products are grown organically. Foods that are at least 70% organic can bear the phrase "Made With Organic Ingredients." Animal products certified as organic must come from livestock that have access to the outdoors, have not been treated with hormones or antibiotics and have been raised on organic feed.
Some producers who don't get certified by the USDA still claim their food offers some of the benefits described under USDA's organic standards guidelines. They might label their products "free range," "natural," "hormone-free," "good for the Earth," "sustainably produced," or anything else that makes them sound like they're good for you and the environment. These claims might be valid. They might also be intended to give the companies a marketing boost; if the claims are unverified, they won't necessarily represent practices that protect you or the environment.
Separate Fact from Fiction
If you want to be absolutely sure that the food you're buying is organic, look for the USDA Organic Seal or the federally-sanctioned words "Made with Organic Ingredients." If you're confused about a claim a farmer or food producer is making, you can research it at www.eco-labels.org.
You can also visit a company's website to review the environmental claims they make about their products. Look for hard scientific evidence and third-party verification to back up a company's claims.
The Food Alliance operates the most comprehensive third-party certification program in North America for "sustainably" produced food. Food Alliance certified T feels that it goes beyond the USDA organic label by distinguishing foods produced by farmers and ranchers who provide safe and fair working conditions, promote healthy and humane treatment of animals; raise animals without added hormones and antibiotics; grow crops without genetically modified organisms, reduce the use of pesticides; conserve soil and water resources; and preserve and protect wildlife habitat. TFA-approved foods can be bought throughout the Midwest and Pacific Northwest.
Want to eat organically at a restaurant? See Green Restaurant Certification & the Perks of Green Dining
Need more proof that organic is better for you? The Organic Consumers Association offers a good explanation here.
Organic vs. Local.
One last thing. Ideally, you'll be able to find food that is both locally grown and organic. How do you choose when that's not possible?
Local growers strengthen your local economy and probably use less energy transporting their produce from the farm gate to your kitchen plate. Organic produce may be available in the supermarket - but it might come from New Zealand , Latin America , or even the other side of the country to get to where you live, racking up huge energy costs and losing a lot of flavor in the process.
Personally, I try to have it all. Whenever possible, I buy locally grown, organic fruits and vegetables. If I shop in season, I'm more likely to meet my food shopping goals. But if I have to, I put my health first. Fruits and vegetables that can't be cleaned adequately (like raspberries or cherries), I buy organic, even if they come from afar. Ultimately, I hope my choice will encourage local growers to adopt more organic growing methods. The best way to send that message is by putting my money where my mouth is.literally.