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Selectively organic: boycotting "The dirty dozen"

My father emailed me this week to warn me against one of my favorite
dishes- spinach salad. Apparently, spinach is one of the “dirty dozen”-
produce that Consumer Reports
claims have such high levels of pesticides that you should buy organic
despite the cost. I read the list in a panic, searching for more of my
staple foods.

Dirty Dozen
Sweet Bell Peppers
Imported Grapes

To my relief, another favorite vegetable, broccoli, was on a difference
list- this time of those foods that you shouldn’t bother to buy organic
because their conventional counterparts are sold with very little
pesticide residue.

Cleanest Dozen
Sweet Corn
Sweet Peas

All this division of fruits and vegetables is the result of studies performed by the consumer advocacy organization the Environmental Working Group
(EWG). Using more than 100,000 of the US Department of Agriculture’s
own lab tests, EWG researchers found that some foods, the “dirty
dozen”- no matter how well they are washed- hit the supermarket shelves
with significantly high levels of pesticides, while others go on sale
with much lower or undetectable levels.

It seems we don’t have to become complete organic converts to avoid
consuming chemicals, but can cross over on a fruit-by-fruit basis with
a very handy Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce
– a money-saving cheat-sheet for those of us too cheap to fork over the
on-average extra 50% cost for organics. Consumer Reports adds meat,
poultry, eggs and dairy to the list of foods to buy organic, but says
you shouldn’t bother with seafood and when it comes to packaged foods
like cereals, breads and canned fruits and vegetables, to only buy
organic if price is no option.

Now we have the tools to not only watch our cholesterol intake, but our
pesticide consumption as well, and according to EWG research a bit of
diet adjustment can make a big difference.

EWG simulation of thousands of consumers eating high and low pesticide
diets shows that people can lower their pesticide exposure by 90
percent by avoiding the top twelve most contaminated fruits and
vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead. – Report Card: Pesticides in Produce, EWG

course, you may be one of those who question whether these pesticides
are really such a bad thing, after all, these chemicals haven’t been
banned by any government agencies. While it’s difficult to know their
long-term effects on humans, many of these pesticides have been proven
toxic to animals, and particularly worrying to pregnant women and
mothers with young children, it seems the unborn and the young are most

It is well established that the fetus,
infant and small child are typically most vulnerable to the toxic
effects of pesticides and toxic chemicals (NRC 1993, EPA 2003, FSA
2003)… Many organ systems, for example the nervous system and brain,
can be permanently, if subtly damaged by exposure to toxic substances
in-utero or throughout early childhood that, at the same level, cause
no measurable harm to adults (Jacobson 1996, CDC 1997, NRC 2000)

layman’s terms, if you’re small- still in the uterus or a child-
chemicals will effect you more, not simply because your organs are
developing, but because you have a much longer life ahead of you, and
the time for diseases like cancer to take root. Though that shouldn’t
preclude the rest of us pomegranate-juice-binging, green-tea-consuming,
antioxidant-obsessed types to monitor our pesticide intake as well, or
really anyone with doubts about swallowing unknown compounds.

To find out just what chemicals are lingering on your favorite fruit or
vegetable, on the EWG site you can click onto one of the dirty dozen
for more info. I did a quick check under spinach and it turns out
researchers found 36 different pesticides and their side effects were

  • animal carcinogen
  • causes birth defects in animals
  • damages reproductive system
  • interferes with hormones
  • damages brain and nervous system
  • damages immune system

I’ve heard enough to turn me onto organic spinach, and the rest of the
“dirty dozen”, no matter what the cost, especially while pregnant. The
problem is organics are not easily accessible. These days, I’m living
mostly in Barcelona, Spain where access to organic produce is limited
(a topic for another post), but even outside of this country, there are
many others with the same problem: plenty of American or UK rural
dwellers without a Trader Joes or Tesco, or simply, those who consider
a drive across town too costly- in fuel or time- solely to keep a check
on their pesticide levels.

So I’ve come up with a third way, and at least while pregnant, I’m
trying to remain pesticide vigilant and eat more of the clean dozen, like
broccoli, asparagus and sweet peas. But on those nights when I can’t be
bothered to cook one of the cleaner options, denying myself a spinach
salad runs counter to my intuition, and so I channel my father’s
inner-voice and reassure myself that just about anything is okay “in
moderation.” I hope he approves.