Eating non-organic green beans is 200 times riskier than eating conventionally grown broccoli. Some non-organic fruits and vegetables that were once thought to have high levels of pesticide residue — such as grapes, pears and spinach — are now seen as relatively safe. And non-organic peaches remain the number-one food to avoid if you want to minimize pesticides in your body.
These are some of the conclusions of a study of organic food published in the May issue of Consumer Reports, which has the credibility that comes from not accepting advertising (see below for its risk rankings). The study got me thinking about our own food consumption.
There is a tension in our household between frugality and eating healthy food. Organic produce costs an average of 49 percent more than conventional, according to Consumer Reports. There’s also a tension in our goal of eating local food as much as possible, because local doesn’t always mean chemical-free!
I wonder if increased use of pesticides while growing food is responsible for increases in certain diseases and the killing-off of bees (a canary in the coal mine?) The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are traces of 29 pesticides in the average American’s body. Yikes!
“The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals,” according to a 2010 report from a panel that monitors the U.S. government’s cancer program. “Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties.”
We would never buy chemical-laden supermarket strawberries, but last June we went to a pick-your-own place without bothering to ask if it was organic (it wasn’t). We’ll be more careful this year when we pick berries for freezing.
Every fall we buy bulk local apples and then make and can applesauce. Apples are notoriously difficult to grow organically (I know; I’ve tried). But some orchards use fewer insecticides and fungicides than others. We’re going to a different orchard this year, and may consider the laborious process of peeling apples before cooking them, instead of just quartering and coring them.
I eat a banana every day, and I’ll probably stick with non-organic ones, which Consumer Reports found to have low risk. But I worry about the effect of pesticides on the banana farm workers, and about putting the peels in my compost. We also consume a lot of cabbage and onions and buy in bulk from local, non-organic producers, and these vegetables rate near the bottom of the risk scale for pesticide residue on vegetables.
Of course, the best way to make sure your fruits and vegetables are fresh and organic is to grow them yourself or buy from a local organic farm. Amherst has many farmers markets and community-supported agriculture operations to choose from.
Here are the non-organic fruits that Consumer Reports found to have a high risk: peaches, tangerines, plums, nectarines, apples (but OK if from New Zealand), strawberries and cantaloupes (bad only if grown in the U.S.). It found a medium risk from cranberries and mangoes and low risk from pears, oranges, cherries, grapefruit, watermelon, blueberries, grapes, raspberries and bananas. It found very low risk from papaya and pineapples.
The highest-risk non-organic vegetables that Consumer Reports found were green beans and peppers. It found high risk from winter and summer squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and sweet potatoes if grown in the U.S. The study found a medium risk from celery, carrots, kale, and potatoes if grown in the U.S., plus asparagus grown in Peru and eggplant grown in Mexico (kale from Mexico and potatoes from Canada were OK). Vegetables with low risk were lettuce, spinach, collards, cauliflower, cilantro, broccoli and mushrooms. Cabbage, corn, avocados and onions were found to be of very low risk.
These calculations were based on risk to a 3-year-old child, because children are especially vulnerable to pesticides. Adult risks would be lower. A very high risk level was based on one daily serving, and a high risk on one to five servings. The was based on an analysis of 12 years of information from the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program.