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To Buy or Not to Buy Organic
Organic food was once only available at health food stores, marketed to consumers willing to pay extra for natural, environmentally friendly foods. Today, it's available at most grocers. People who buy organic are seeking assurance that food production is gentle to the earth, and/or they're looking for safer, purer, more natural foods. But with today's shrinking dollar, is buying organic worth the extra cost?
Buy Organic: Peaches
Going organic is good for you and the Earth, but if you can't always afford it -- since organic can cost 50%-100% more -- experts recommend spending most of your organic food dollars on produce and the foods you eat most often. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C., recommends going organic on produce that is most susceptible to pesticide residue, like peaches.
Buy Organic: Apples
Apples are a good source of fiber -- especially if you eat the peel. The peel also has healthful phytochemicals that may reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease. But the peel is also where pesticides accumulate. So buying organic apples is a good use of your organic food dollars. If you can't afford to buy organic apples, scrubbing their skins under running water can help reduce pesticide residues, too.
Buy Organic: Sweet Bell Peppers
While bell peppers are among those vegetables with higher pesticide residues, the USDA makes no claims that organic foods are safer, healthier, or more nutritious than conventional foods. Government limits set safe levels of pesticide use in growing and processing foods and residue allowed on foods. Although some pesticide levels are assumed to be safe, the chemicals used are toxic. Because kids' immune systems may not be fully developed, they may be at greater risk from some pesticides than adults.
Buy Organic: Celery
A crunchy, low-calorie vegetable with a bit of vitamins A, C, and K, folate, potassium, and manganese, one large stalk of celery only contains about 10 calories. Whether or not you buy organic celery, you can do your part to reduce pesticide residues, dirt, and bacteria by thoroughly washing the stalks under streaming water. Do not use soap.
Buy Organic: Nectarines
This juicy fruit is rich in vitamins A and C, niacin, and potassium. An average-sized nectarine contains about 65 calories. Scrub or remove the peel to help reduce pesticide residues.
Buy Organic: Strawberries & Cherries
Strawberries and cherries are a great source of vitamin C. And while buying organic berries may give you a lot of bang for your organic buck, you may also want to consider buying local. Locally grown foods are usually fresher -- and kinder to the environment -- than produce that's been trucked across the country in energy-consuming vehicles.
Buy Organic: Pears
Pears rank second to the apple as the most popular U.S. fruit. A medium-sized pear contains about 103 calories and is a good source of health-promoting vitamin C and fiber. But they frequently have higher pesticide residues than many other fruits. The USDA has found almost 30 pesticide residues on pears. It's a good idea to scrub a pear's skin to reduce pesticide residue and bacteria, even in organic pears.
Buy Organic: Grapes
Grapes are a delectable low-calorie snack or dessert. One cup contains about 104 calories and is packed with vitamins C and K. Raisins (dried grapes) are also a good source of iron. Try to avoid imported grapes, which often have higher pesticide residues, but don't eliminate them from your diet if you can't always buy organic. Consider buying organic grapes for children and if you're pregnant.
Buy Organic: Spinach & Lettuce
Spinach -- a great source of protein, vitamins A, C, E, and K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese -- has about 7 calories a cup. Lettuce has about 5 calories per cup. But they also have high levels of pesticide residue -- the USDA Pesticide Data Program found 57 pesticide residues in spinach and 51 in lettuce. Buy organic or grow your own (greens do well even in large patio containers).
Buy Organic: Potatoes & Carrots
This leafy, green powerhouse is a great source of protein, vitamins A, C, E, and K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, folate, calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese -- and has about 7 calories a cup. Because spinach binds with iron and calcium, reducing their absorption, enjoy vitamin-C-rich foods such as orange juice, tomatoes, or citrus fruit with spinach to aid absorption.
Buy Organic: Milk
Cows raised on conventional farms are often given recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) to increase the amount of milk they produce. Does rBGH pose a health hazard to humans? Scientists don't agree. But if you have an infant or child who drinks milk, consider taking precaution and choosing rBGH-free or organic. Organic milk comes from cows that have not been given antibiotics or hormones. Many conventional brands are rBGH-free but aren't labeled as such. Look it up online or call the manufacturer.
Buy Organic: Beef
According to the Organic Trade Association, livestock on an organic farm cannot be given antibiotics or growth hormones unnecessarily -- a common practice in conventional agriculture. Some experts think using antibiotics this way may contribute to the rise of superbugs. And although the risk to humans isn't clear, added hormones do show up in supermarket beef.
Buy Organic: Peanut Butter
Kids tend to eat a lot of peanut butter, so you may want to make sure they're not ingesting chemicals along with a PB&J sandwich. And peanut butter made from just organic peanuts and salt is healthier than conventional peanut butter with added hydrogenated oils and sugar. The natural oils in organic peanut butter may separate and form a layer on top of the jar -- if so, just stir it all up so it's creamy again.
Buy Organic: Baby Foods
Because kids' immune systems are not fully developed, they may be at greater risk from some pesticides than adults. Feeding them organic baby food provides peace of mind and ensures you give your baby the best start.
Look for the USDA Organic Seal
Don't confuse "free-range," "hormone free" or "natural" with organic. Look for the organic seal which means the food is grown, harvested, and processed according to USDA standards that include restrictions on amounts and residues of pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Natural pesticides are allowed. Organic foods cannot be treated with any sewage sludge, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation.
Buy Conventional or Local: Papayas & Mangoes
The Environmental Working Group lists several foods as having the least pesticide residues and not worth spending the extra money to buy organic varieties. Tough peels on some fruits and vegetables absorb much of the pesticide. If you discard the peel, the remaining food has less pesticide residue. Papayas and mangoes are among these foods.
Buy Conventional or Local: Broccoli
The health benefits of conventionally grown produce far outweigh potential risks from pesticide exposure, so enjoy broccoli raw or cooked after washing well. Florets that are dark green, purplish, or bluish contain more beta-carotene and vitamin C than paler or yellowing ones. This vitamin C-packed veggie is also a great source of vitamins A, K, and B6, folate, potassium, and manganese. One cup of raw broccoli has about 31 calories.
Buy Conventional or Local: Cabbage
Cabbage is a great source of vitamins C, K, and B6, as well as folate and manganese. One cup of raw cabbage contains only about 22 calories. Remove and discard the outer layers to cut down on dirt, bacteria, and pesticide residues. (Avoid buying precut cabbage, as the leaves may have already lost their vitamin C.)
Buy Conventional or Local: Bananas
It is a good idea to scrub even produce with inedible skins such as bananas before eating them; that way you keep any contaminates on the skin from spreading to the edible part of the fruit. Bananas are a good source of vitamin C, potassium, and manganese, and a great source of vitamin B6. A medium banana contains about 105 calories.
Buy Conventional or Local: Kiwifruit & Pineapple
An excellent source of vitamins C and K, a medium kiwifruit contains about 46 calories. Pineapple is a great source of vitamin C and manganese. One cup of the fruit contains about 74 calories. Scrub and peel the skins of these fruits before enjoying the sweet flesh.
Buy Conventional or Local: Peas
A half cup of fresh peas contains about 55 calories and is rich in vitamins A, C, and K, thiamin, and manganese. Peas are also a good low-calorie source of protein. A 100-calorie serving of peas (about 3/4 cup) contains more protein than a whole egg or a tablespoon of peanut butter, and has less than 1 gram of fat and no cholesterol. Rinse them before preparing.
Buy Conventional or Local: Asparagus
Asparagus can be found in green and white varieties. Four cooked spears of asparagus contain about 13 calories and are a great source of protein, vitamins A, C, E, and K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese, and selenium. Wash thoroughly before preparing.
Buy Conventional or Local: Corn
A good source of thiamin and folate, one cooked ear of yellow corn contains about 111 calories. Make sure the corn husks are green, tight, and fresh looking. Pull them open a little to make sure that the ear contains tightly packed rows of plump kernels. The kernels should be smaller at the tip of each ear. Large kernels at the tip are signs of overmaturity.
Buy Conventional or Local: Avocados
Avocados are loaded with dietary fiber, vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and folate. Avocados contain 60% more potassium per ounce than bananas. This fruit is an excellent source of healthy monounsaturated fat. While it's a good source of vitamin K and folate, an average-sized avocado packs about 227 calories. Wash and remove the skin before enjoying.
Buy Conventional or Local: Onions
A great source of vitamin C, one medium onion contains only around 44 calories. Remove the outer layers of skin before cooking or serving raw.
Understand Organic Terminology
When buying organic, look for the following USDA regulated terms on food labels:
- "100% organic" -- This means the food has no synthetic ingredients and can use the organic seal.
- "Organic" -- This means the food has a minimum of 95% organic ingredients. It can also use the organic seal.
- "Made with organic ingredients" -- This means the food must contain at least 70% organic ingredients. These foods cannot use the seal.
- Meat, eggs, poultry, and dairy labeled "organic" must come from animals that have never received antibiotics or growth hormones.
- Standards for organic seafood and cosmetics have not been set.
Reduce Pesticide Residues
Whether or not you buy organic, you can do your part to reduce pesticide residues on foods with the following tips:
- Wash and scrub produce under streaming water to remove dirt, bacteria, and surface pesticide residues -- even produce with inedible skins such as cantaloupe. Don't use soap.
- Remove the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
- Eat a variety of foods from different sources.
Eat Plenty of Fruits and Vegetables
One thing the experts agree on: Regardless of whether you choose locally grown, organic, or conventional foods, the important thing is to eat plenty of produce. The health benefits of such a diet far outweigh any potential risks from pesticide exposure. Government guidelines recommend eating a variety of fruits and vegetables. Adults should aim for 4-5 cups of produce every day for their health-promoting, disease-preventing substances.
More Reading on Food and Nutrition
Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD, FAAP on Monday, June 13, 2011
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