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You’d like to buy all organic fruits and veggies, but you can’t really afford to? Start with the dirty dozen.
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
I’ll be the first to admit I’m a little neurotic.
One of my neuroses involves a paranoia of chemicals — in short, I know human beings are routinely exposed to a litany of chemicals and I wonder if that has something to do with the scary health diagnoses I hear about every day.
One of the worst places for a person with chemophobia (that is a real word) is the grocery store produce department. If it isn’t organic, then what was used to keep all the pesky bugs and fungi from devouring or damaging it?
Despite the chemophobia, I do not buy all organic. That’s because one of my other neuroses revolves around money — buying organic is generally more expensive.
So what is an average-income person to do in order to save money without ingesting enough chemicals to make her glow in the dark?
The Dirty Dozen is a good place to start.
Minimize your exposure
For nine years, the non profit, Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group has analyzed pesticide data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration to come up with an annual shopper’s guide they call the Dirty Dozen.
I love this concept because it means that, according to the EWG, you can greatly minimize your family’s intake of pesticides by purchasing organic versions of specific fruits and vegetables rather than trying to go completely organic, which can be cost-prohibitive for many people.
Some produce is more prone to pesticide contamination because it doesn’t have a protective layer to block the absorption. Mother Nature has given pineapple and bananas, for example, a pretty heavy coat to ward off pesticides, but strawberries and blueberries have no such shield.
Another reason some fruits and vegetables contain a lot of chemical residue has to do with the way they are grown and their attractiveness to bugs and fungi.
Grapes, which hang in tight clusters that are often sheltered by leaves, are a perfect breeding ground for fungus. Therefore, it’s virtually impossible to grow most varieties without the use of sprays. The same goes for peaches and nectarines, which are covered in a fuzzy coat that traps moisture and promotes fungal growth.
Here are a few facts that are important to note:
In addition to the Dirty Dozen, the group puts out a list called the Clean Fifteen. That’s 15 fruits and veggies you can feel good about buying non-organic because they tested the lowest for chemical residue.
Don’t worry, that list is not composed of stuff such as rutabagas and parsnips — members of the elite Clean Fifteen include tasty stuff such as mangoes, mushrooms, onions, papayas and sweet potatoes.
Talk to farmers
Adhering to the EWG’s suggestions is one way to shop healthier, but another way to do it is to buy at your local farmers market.
That doesn’t mean all the fruits and vegetables piled on farmers market tables are organic, but it does mean you can look the grower in the eye and ask questions about the practices he or she uses on the farm. It also means the produce is likely much fresher and therefore more nutritious, said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG.
To give you an example of the wide spectrum of growing methods out there, consider what I learned during a recent conversation with Tenley Weaver, manager of Good Food-Good People in Floyd: Out of the dozens of farmers they buy from in order to distribute to restaurants, community supported agriculture customers and other buyers, they have four different categories of growing methods.
The first is “conventional,” which means the produce is grown using pesticides and/or fungicides.
If it is “organic,” it has been certified through the USDA to have been grown without synthetic chemicals, fertilizers, genetic engineering, radiation or sewage sludge.
If it is “biologically grown,” that means it was grown organically but the farmer does not have organic certification, probably because he or she does not have the means to get the certification or has not found it necessary.
Finally, a few local growers are participating in a new program called “certified naturally grown,” which is a peer-review program in which farmers police one another’s growing practices.
As Weaver said, “Who would know better than another grower if somebody was fudging on the practices?”
A lot of producers label their products with the growing methods, and if they do not they should have no qualms about describing those methods when you ask.
All-organic not likely
One last thing to keep in mind at both the grocery store and the farmers market is that there will probably never come a day when all fruit and produce can be grown on a commercial scale in America — or anywhere else in the world, for that matter — without the use of sprays.
Without it, fruits and vegetables come out looking rather gnarly, which reduces the chance that anybody will buy them.
“Sometimes I can source unsprayed apples and when I bring them to market, nobody will buy them,” Weaver said. “So some of this is about cosmetics.”
It is also about perishability, she said. Fungicides don’t just keep produce from rotting before harvest ; they prevent it from spoiling rapidly after it’s picked. Weaver said unsprayed winter squash typically stays good only until December or January, but the one time she had to source conventionally grown winter squash, it lasted well into spring.
Danny Johnson, owner of Peaks of Otter Winery and Johnson’s Orchard, said he follows the Low Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program, which calls for spraying as little as possible. That way, just like when consumers follow the EGW’s Dirty Dozen list, he is doing the best he can to mitigate exposure to chemicals for both his customers and his family.
“I think using the least amount of chemicals you can, trying to be as safe as you can doing it [is the best way],” he said. “I don’t want to use anything that’s not right because I’m right there in that stuff, and I pick the fruit right off the tree and wipe it off and eat it right there in the orchard.”
For more information about the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen, go to www.ewg.org.
On the blog: Cafe Asia opening south Roanoke location. Details at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet .
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