There is no doubt, buying organic is costly, at least in the short term. It can be difficult to justify handing over up to twice the amount of money for, arguably, the same product. For this reason, I personally do not always buy organic. There are some things however that I make the effort to find organic versions of.
Organic Produce: What is Worth Buying?
Every year, The Environmental Working Group tests levels of pesticide residue on a wide variety produce, in the form it would be eaten; i.e. washed (and peeled etc where applicable). They publish their findings in what they call “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen”.
The Dirty Dozen is a list of the top twelve most contaminated foods and The Clean Fifteen are the fifteen foods with the least amount of pesticide residue remaining.
“Different pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including: brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone disruption, skin, eye and lung irritation”
The Environmental Working Group
The EWG‘s results are based upon both domestic and imported fruit and veg for sale in American supermarkets. Their list is certainly a good starting point for us as consumers in determining what type of fruit and veg we might want to buy organic.
“EWG recommends buying organic whenever possible. Not only is it smart to reduce your exposure to pesticides, but buying organic sends a message that you support environmentally-friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers and protect water quality and wildlife.
However, we know that organics are not accessible or affordable for everyone, so we created the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ to help consumers make the healthiest choices given their circumstances”.
The Environmental Working Group
The 2016 Dirty Dozen:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
The 2016 Clean Fifteen:
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (frozen)
- Honeydew Melon
Because the EWG tests produce that is already thoroughly washed, washing fruit and veg wouldn’t change its ranking on their list. As well as this, some fruit and veg will absorb pesticides systemically, e.g. up through the roots, so washing would have no real effect in those cases anyway. The EWG advises that by not washing conventional fruit and veg before use, you do risk ingesting significantly higher pesticide levels.
You might also note that The Dirty Dozen is made up of fruit and veg of which the skin is typically consumed, whereas The Clean Fifteen is mostly made up of produce whose skin would not be consumed. It makes sense that less pesticides would be needed on these thicker-skinned, hardy crops. This is something I bear in mind when choosing organic. For example, I would be less likely to spend on organic onions but I would be more inclined to buy organic berries. As I said above though, some pesticides are absorbed systemically and thus wouldn’t necessarily be solely found on the skin of produce.
If I’m going to be using the rind of a fruit such as lemon, lime or orange or am going to be slicing lemon or lime wedges into drinks – especially hot teas, I will try to buy organic versions of the fruit. I also tend to buy organic mushroom, simply because mushroom is quite literally a product of the environment it is grown in and the better the soil, the better the mushroom.
When I do buy organic fruit or veg I try to really make the most of it by using every part of the food. If I bought organic carrots for example, I would keep the peels and ends in a bag in the freezer and use them once a month or so to make a large pot of chicken stock. I do this with all organic scraps rather than dumping them. Likewise, I would grate and freeze organic lemon peel to use as rind in recipes or keep the peel for making lemon tea. In this way, I get more value for what I’m buying.
It is particularly interesting to note that lacto-fermented vegetables have been shown to degrade some pesticide residues. A study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry looking at the function of microorganisms in degrading the organophosphorus insecticide chlorpyrifos during kimchi fermentation found the insecticide degraded rapidly until day 3. By day 9 it had been completely degraded. Four lactic acid bacteria were identified as being responsible for the effect; Leuconostoc mesenteriodes, Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum and Lactobacillus sake. These same bacteria are often found in other lacto-fermented foods such as kefir.
Another study published in Letters in Applied Microbiology looked at the role Lactobacillus plantarum plays in the break-down of pesticides on wheat crop. Their results showed that L. plantarum was able to reduce the level of pirimiphos-methyl in wheat…
Pesticide residues are an unavoidable part of the environment due to their extensive applications in agriculture. As wheat is a major cultivated cereal, the presence of pesticide residues in wheat is a real concern to human health… Present work investigates the dissipation of pirimiphos-methyl during wheat fermentation by L. plantarum. Results are confirmation that food-processing techniques can significantly reduce the pesticide residues in food, offering a suitable means to tackle the current scenario of unsafe food.
Letters in Applied Microbiology
For years I have opted for the pre-washed bags of salad in the supermarket – assuming this meant that much of the pesticides would have already been washed off. Unfortunately I learned just last night on RTE’s What Are You Eating that these packaged salads are in fact washed in chlorine. Whilst the chlorine is then rinsed off, residual amounts do remain on the produce. In essence, both pesticides and chlorine are utilised for the same thing; killing microbes or pests. So essentially, I was unwittingly swapping one problem for another.
Of course ingesting chlorine is going to be harmful to our own gut microbes in the same way pesticides are. In fact, chlorine could even kill those same bacteria I mentioned earlier that might actually break down pesticide residues. Oh the irony of modern food processing! I will certainly be avoiding packaged salads from now on and will be sticking to the organic “unwashed” kind.
Ultimately, if one wishes to offset pesticide ingestion, including fermented foods in one’s diet is a great idea. Doing so could help our bodies to process and break down some of those pesticides that we are inevitably exposed to.
In short, I buy organic when it is available and when I feel it is worth it. I wouldn’t exclude a particular vegetable from my diet just because I couldn’t find an organic version of it. It is crucial to remember that vegetables and fruit are important sources of vitamins, minerals and fibre and they certainly should not be avoided just because they are not organic. That said, I believe it is a practical step in the right direction, both for us and the planet, if we could switch to the organic version of the most heavily pesticide-laden fruit and veg. I am so grateful to the EWG for making this resource available over the last few years and giving us another tool to use as conscious consumers.