The Lowdown on Organic Food

View from the Kalalau Trail, 4/27/2010

Aloha from Kauai!

First and foremost, my apologies for the shortage of blog entries this month—and the sluggish replies to emails. I’m currently exploring the balmy islands of Hawaii, expanding my repertoire of exotic fruit while gifting the mosquitoes with two sacrificial offerings of flesh (my legs). Holy insect swarms, Batman! Expect a steadier stream of updates once I’m back on the mainland and not spending half of my waking hours itching.

Here’s a subject near and dear to any raw foodist’s heart: organics. Given the amount of produce most of us scarf down, it’s only logical that the quality of our food—and any chemical residue it ushers into our body—should be a major concern. It would be wonderful if everything we put in our mouths was free from pesticides, untouched by toxins, and grown in a way that was healthy for both the land and for our bodies.

Most people assume that means buying organic.

Unfortunately, for your average non-millionaire Joe Schmoe raw foodist, organic foods have two obvious strikes against them. One: they typically bear a higher (sometimes astronomically so) price tag than their conventional counterparts, and two: some towns and cities have limited availability of organic produce—which means less variety and sometimes less freshness for you.

Alas, it doesn’t end there. For those of us seeking a squeaky-clean diet that won’t stab Mother Earth in the back, organics are not necessarily the holy grail we’re looking for. Check out these misconceptions.

Myth 1. Buying organic means you’re supporting small farms, family-owned businesses, your next-door neighbor Hank who grows chemical-free cucumbers, and all those other nice people who battle big, evil, pesticide-spraying corporations.

If only this were true! The reality is that most producers of organic food also crank out billions of dollars worth of conventional items. Rather than caring tenderly for the earth and its inhabitants, some of these companies simply realized that they can make a prettier penny cashing in on the organics niche, selling less product for a higher cost.  Take Cascadian Farm, for example—maker of the organic frozen fruit you’ve probably seen lining the shelves of your grocer’s freezer. Far from a quaint family-run farm, Cascadian Farm is owned by General Mills. Yep, that’s right: the same mega-corp that makes fruit roll-ups, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Gushers candy, Lucky Charms, Hamburger Helper, and a laundry list of other foods that don’t belong near anyone’s lips.

Cascadian Farm organic blueberries... brought to you by the makers of the Pillsbury Dough Boy

Bottom line: unless you’re getting your organic food straight from a farm or at a farmers’ market, chances are you’re still padding the pockets of those giant unsavory companies.

Myth 2. Organic food doesn’t contain any harmful or toxic substances.

Unfortunately, this is not only a common myth, but a potentially dangerous one because it implies organic food is safe to eat without washing. How far from the truth this is! Organic does not mean “pesticide free” or “chemical free.” Organic growers do shun synthetic chemicals, but many make liberal use of organic fungicides and pesticides—often at much higher concentrations than conventional growers use, since organic pesticides are generally less effective than synthetic ones. Organic produce can carry residues of nicotine (used as an insecticide), pyrethrum (“a likely human carcinogen,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency), rotenone (a potent carcinogen)… the list goes on. About half of the most common organic pesticides used have cancer-causing properties, according to Bruce Ames (inventor of the famous Ames toxicology test), and the ones that don’t are frequently harmful or lethal to birds, fish, and small mammals.

Myth 3. All conventional produce has pesticide residue when you eat it.

Thanks to the wonders of technology, this is no longer the case. Some modern synthetic pesticides (known as “non-persistent pesticides”)  have such a rapid break-down rate that by the time they leave the farm, they’re no longer detectable on the fruits and vegetables they originally coated. Depending on where your food is sourced, conventional produce may have even less pesticide residue than organically-grown varieties.

Why does everyone say organic food isn’t as toxic as conventional?

For many years, it was simply assumed that organic, botanically-derived pesticides wouldn’t cause any harm to the human body—the whole “natural is healthy” mantra. In fact, organic pesticides weren’t even the subject of toxicology studies until fairly recently; only synthetic pesticides were examined for their damaging and carcinogenic effects. Once the research spotlight fell on organic chemicals, their own dangers became apparent—but due to pervading myths and pressure from the highly lucrative organic niche, this information hasn’t received the attention it deserves.

In other words…

Don’t freak out if you can’t afford a completely organic diet. Although organic foods do seem to taste better much of the time and are often grown in better soils (which is the reason for the better taste), you aren’t dooming yourself to a toxic overload if you eat some—or even entirely—conventionally grown food. And when it comes to nutritional content of your fruits and veggies, organic-versus-conventional matters less than freshness—the total transit time from the tree or bush to your dinner plate. Spinach, for instance, loses half of its folate within a week of being picked. Yikes, right?

Bye-bye, toxins

Whether your purchases are organic or conventional, you can remove some lingering pesticide residue with a homemade or store-bought produce wash. Try spritzing your fruits and veggies with a mixture of 90% water and 10% food-grade hydrogen peroxide, then scrub those puppies clean with a sponge or vegetable scrubber. Alternatively, you can use a spray made from a mixture of water (1 cup), baking soda (2 tablespoons), vinegar (1 cup), and grapefruit seed extract (20 drops)—or even double the recipe, pour it into a pot, and let your food sit in it for a few minutes before washing it off thoroughly with warm water. If you can find a chemical-free fruit and veggie wash containing grapefruit seed extract at the store, that can do the job as well.

Be aware, though, that as soon as you wash any produce in this manner, it won’t store for very long before going bad—so wait until you’re ready to eat your fruits and veggies before giving them the de-pesticiding treatment.

What’s safest to eat?

Some foods generally require less pesticides and fungicides than others, whether grown conventionally or organically, simply because pests don’t attack them much. The absolute safest raw foods to eat, in terms of low pesticide residue, are…

(Drum roll please)

  • Asparagus
  • Avocados
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Corn (fresh/raw)
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet peas
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Watermelon

Some other not-so-bad choices include:

  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit
  • Honeydew melons
  • Plums
  • Raspberries
  • Tangerines
  • Tomatoes

And on the flip side, the most pesticide-laden raw foods include:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Strawberries

Note: you don’t need to completely give up the foods on the last list (I’m definitely never bidding farewell to my beloved strawberries), but it’d be wise not to center your diet on them—unless you have a source of truly pesticide-free varieties.

Additional tips

Get to know your source. If you shop at a co-ops or farmers’ market, you’ll be able to track down specific farms fairly easily—meaning you can contact your food source directly and inquire about their pesticide and fungicide use.

Grow your own and forage. Whenever possible, take your food production into your own hands: pick wild edibles, grow herbs or greens on your windowsill, plant strawberries in your garden—whatever your climate and living situation allows.

A 100% chemical-free diet might not always be practical or possible, but with proper planning, we can choose our produce wisely to minimize the damage.

27 comments

    1. Proof that he said it, or proof that it’s accurate?

      http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/06/synthetic-v-natural-pesticides/

      “But Dr. Ames began rethinking this war against synthetic chemicals after thousands of chemicals had been subjected to his test. He noticed that plenty of natural chemicals flunked the Ames test. He and Dr. Gold took a systematic look at the chemicals that had been tested on rodents. They found that about half of natural chemicals tested positive for carcinogencity, the same proportion as the synthetic chemicals.”

      If you want to verify this claim, you can view the data from the Carcinogenic Potency Project here:

      http://potency.berkeley.edu/cpdb.html

  1. Thank you for your sharing your work. You made a good point we should be aware of; we can go merrily on thinking our assumptions are true, paying the price, but find that they are actually quite wrong, and at least some of the expense not necessary.

    Good news about the non-persistent pesticides.

    Comparing the list above with EWG’s Shopper’s Guide To Pesticides (http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php) brings up some questions on the particulars of testing and the presentation of results. There is agreement, but also apparent disagreement, some (seemingly) significant.

    I’m wondering if the non-persistent pesticide issue has any relevance in the differences.

    Thanks also for the produce wash recipe using gse. That’s easy enough. I’m wondering if it can be made up ahead of time and stored or if it needs to be used immediately.

    I’m wondering how much good is done by using produce wash on something such as strawberries.

  2. I’m quite surprised to see pineapples on the list of produce that has the least amount of pesticide usage for cultivation. I grew up in the upcountry areas of Maui, Hawaii which still have a few pineapple fields left today. Close to 50% of the time you drive by the fields you can see large trucks with long booms driving down the dirt roads in the fields and just soaking the plants in chemical insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, growth regulators, and fertilizers.

    The insects that affect pineapples tend to get into the cavities and crevices between leaves, this makes it necessary to have multiple applications of pesticides. They also have a very waxy coating on them so usually you have to apply twice the amount of pesticide compared with other pests in order for them to be killed by it.

    The top chemicals used in pineapple agriculture right now are Bromacil, Endosulfan, Diazinon, and Diuron. If you want to know more about them just look them up. I know there’s been efforts in the past few years toward banning Endosulfan worldwide under the Stockholm and Rotterdam Conventions.

    http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/endosulfan-pesticide-ban-0610?src=rss

  3. Like Pam, I’m also wondering if the produce wash can be made up ahead of time and stored or if it needs to be used immediately – any thoughts?

  4. Hello,
    I admire your work wrt the China Study very much, but wrt Bruce Ames I wonder whether you understood him right. When Ames (and Gold) talk about natural pesticides, i.e. chemicals that show in toxicological tests to be just as carcinogenic or more then man made chemicals they are not referring to some sort of products of natural origin that farmers spray on their products, but to chemicals that the plants make for their own good, to protect themselves from attacks by insects, molds etc. Plants do not grow for our sake, but want a life of their own. Where man made chemicals are heavily regulated and we ingest only milli or micrograms of them, nature still produces similar substances that we consume without any regulation in quantities that are hundred to thousandfold bigger. Ames is indeed the inventor of the Ames test, but I consider his work on carcinogens more important (Starting with ‘Dietary carcinogens/pesticides’ in Science 1984). Since Ames claims that natural and man made pesticides have a similar toxicological properties and that there is no health benefit in organic food consumption, on the contrary. I think he is right. The whole debate is probably about nothing since cancers is (again Ames) probably caused by endogenous mechanisms in the human body that have biochemical similarities to the hazards of the man made or natural pesticides but are quantitatively very much more important. Each cell produces carcinogenic substances all the time. We have billions of them, and they can finally break down a human body. Ingested chemicals may do the same qualitatively, but are quantitatively hardly important. That is imho the point Ames tries to make.

  5. Question: What is the difference between “food-grade hydrogen peroxide” and “regular” hydrogen peroxide that I buy in the store? And, where can I get the food-grade hydrogen peroxide?

    Thanks.

  6. Also, re: myth #2: some food crops attract some truly nasty fungi. You might be eating mycotoxins with your organic strawberries.

    Soooo totally agree with myth #1. Worker treatment is very important to me, but few in the US seem to care. “Organic” is a loosely-defined term that ultimately rests on the “vital essence of soil” theory of biology (ie, a defunct one) and is hence meaningless. Sometimes organic methods are safer for the farmer. Sometimes conventional and organic methods are the same! Most farmers I know don’t want to die from huffing 3000x the safe level of pesticides and hate being beholden to Monsanto, too. In the US we have big, structural problems which are mostly about power, money, and politics. The little guys at the USDA were right to resist tacking a pointless “Organic” sticker on the same, old migrant slave labor picked produce grown on the same, old depleted soil. Btw, still waiting for proof of the nutritional superiority of organics … I hear crickets.

    I also hear crickets are good eatin’.

  7. One advantage that organic pesticides (insect/herb/fungi) have over synthetic no matter how toxic either is, is that many of them are made from biological sources. In the long run they are what’s going to be used on produce because if the Peak Oil folks are right, petroleum will become too expensive for most applications over the next several decades. Might as well get used to natural controls now.

    It’s going to suck trying to find good fungicides when we hit peak copper, but there are other ways to control fungus.

    But at bottom people need to start thinking of food production as a biological process, not a mechanistic one. I think that will have the greatest influence over whether we can continue to look to plant foods as a source of nourishment rather than have them become a source of poison. There are more ways to control pests than by spraying them.

  8. Oh and even if petroleum does come out of the ground, I tend to not think of it as natural *above ground* because that’s not where you find it in most areas of the world. The earth’s crust has to leak before it will come up. What’s “natural” to organisms on top of the earth’s crust tends to be things that come from on top of the earth’s crust. People like to play games with words here and I ain’t going along.

  9. Denise,
    RE raw foods, I recommend the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard W. Wrangham

    The author makes a pretty good case for the hypothesis that pre-humans had the use of fire and that this had a significant role in human evolution. The gist of the argument is an argument that humans do best on cooked food because we evolved eating cooked food.

    Anyway, thanks for the enlightening blog.

    Eric

  10. I have a blog with blogger. I have registered my blog using a gmail account. Now, I want to use a new gmail account and I wanted to import my whole blog along with the posts and comments to this new gmail id.. . Please tell me, is this possible and how can it be done?.

  11. when you say conventional does that include Genetically modified foods also, because if it does i highly disagree with that. frankenstein gene corn no thanks

  12. I’m glad i found your site.

    But reading this article has got me confused. Should I continue being Organic, or…..

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