Is organic really worth it? The Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15

After an unexpected hiatus, I’m back! I didn’t mean to neglect my blog but March somehow slipped through my fingers. A hectic work schedule plus family commitments, quickly followed by a glorious relaxing March Break holiday in the Dominican Republic and before I knew it, the month had passed. Things are a little more back to normal and I promise to devote more time in the coming weeks to my blog and to you, my readers!

Today let’s talk about the merits of organic produce vs. conventional. I’m often asked “Do you eat everything organic?” It’s a good question. We do know that pesticides are harmful not only to our personal health but also to the health of our planet. I think what everyone really wants to know is how bad are they? While I don’t consider myself an expert in the environmental field, I would like to address the health impact of organics vs conventional fruits and veggies.

The health implications of long-term and excessive exposure to pesticides and other toxins are, I believe, well-documented. Studies have linked high pesticide intake to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. As well as interfering with our nervous system, pesticides such as captan (used on strawberries and bell peppers), permethrin (found in spinach) and thiabendazde (commonly used on apples) are known or suspected carcinogens, which can increase our risk of developing cancer.

Also of concern is the impact that various pesticides can have on our endocrine and reproductive systems. Our endocrine system produces and releases chemicals we call hormones, which regulate virtually every cell and function of our body including growth and development, reproduction and metabolism.  Hormone disruptors interfere with our natural endocrine system by either altering, magnifying or blocking the function of our hormones. For example, according to the Pesticide Action Network, grapes alone contain up to 17 different suspected hormone disrupting chemicals. These toxins imitate our natural hormones and in consequence, can cause a wide array of health problems.

Xenoestrogens are chemicals that mimic estrogen in our bodies and as a result can disrupt hormonal activity. Estrogen dominance can be linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, uterine fibroids, endometriosis and other reproductive concerns for women. In men it can lead to reduced sperm count, hair loss, and prostate or testicular cancer.

Some research also suggests that other endocrine system disorders such as diabetes, thyroid abnormalities and behavioural abnormalities in children may also be due to chemicals interfering with our hormones.

So that’s the “how bad” part.

There is no question that choosing organic over conventional produce will reduce our exposure to pesticides and their nasty effects. The reality, however, for most of us is one of affordability as well as availability. The rule I live by and recommend to my clients is to try to minimize your exposure as much as possible. At the end of the day you’re better off eating a wide variety of conventional fruits and vegetables than not eating any at all. So which ones are ok and which ones aren’t?

The Environmental Working Group releases an annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides” (reprinted below) based on data collected from the U. S. Department of Agriculture. After examining thousands of samples, this list highlights both “The Dirty Dozen” and “the Clean 15″. The Dirty Dozen lists fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residues; these are the foods you really want to spend the extra dollars on for organic. When organic is not an option, try to substitute. In my household, if the organic apples look mushy, then I’ll switch to mangoes, pineapple or oranges for that week. Produce listed under the “Clean 15″ has the lowest measures of pesticide residues and are generally ok to buy conventional.

Reprinted from the EWG website, here is the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce:

Dirty Dozen (buy these organic)

  • apples
  • celery
  • strawberries
  • peaches
  • spinach
  • nectarines
  • grapes
  • sweet bell peppers
  • potatoes
  • blueberries
  • lettuce
  • kale/collard greens

Clean 15 (lowest in pesticides)

  • onions
  • sweet corn
  • pineapples
  • avocado
  • asparagus
  • sweet peas
  • mangoes
  • eggplant
  • cantaloupe
  • kiwi
  • cabbage
  • watermelon
  • sweet potatoes
  • grapefruit
  • mushrooms

If you want to see the entire list of all 53 items tested, you can find it here.

Keep in mind that washing and peeling fruits and veggies can help reduce pesticide levels but will not eliminate them. And peeling an apple or potato means you lose valuable nutrients. My suggestion to you is to use these lists as guidelines, to help you prioritize which fruits and veggies you will choose organic and remember to eat a variety of colours every day.

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