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Earth Friendly: Conventionally-grown produce can have residual pesticides

July 14, 2010 at 2:14 a.m.

Meridith Byrd

By Meridith Byrd

Organic foods have become more popular in recent years, and researching the topic online does not necessarily result in clear, concise answers as to whether organic meats, fruits and vegetables are healthier than non-organics. Though organic foods can be found locally, many consumers are concerned with the higher cost and unsure of any potential benefit.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, "organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge or ionizing radiation." In addition, genetically-engineered foods cannot be labeled as organic.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a Washington, D.C.-based, nonprofit organization that employs researchers in different fields and produces consumer advocacy reports that cover a number of topics, including cosmetics and personal care safety, cell phone radiation and pesticides in produce. Last month, the EWG released the sixth edition of the "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides," which ranks conventionally-grown produce based on total pesticide load.

Pesticides not only affect the skin of a plant, but can be absorbed into the plant itself. The EWG analyzed data from 96,000 tests for pesticides in produce; the tests were performed by the USDA and the FDA from 2000 to 2008. All fruits and vegetables were washed before being tested, and those that are normally peeled before eating were peeled, to accurately reflect the likelihood of chemicals remaining on or in the food when eaten.

In all, 49 fruits and vegetables were ranked in order from best (meaning least likely to contain residual chemicals) to worst. The top third are known as the "Clean Fifteen" and are, in order: onion, avocado, frozen sweet corn, pineapple, mango, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, kiwifruit, cabbage, eggplant, domestic cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potato and honeydew melon.

According to the findings, at least 90 percent of the asparagus, sweet corn and onions sampled had no pesticide residues. Pesticides were found in less than 10 percent of pineapples, mangoes and avocados.

The "Dirty Dozen", or those most likely to contain pesticides, are celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard greens, potatoes and imported grapes.

Peaches were found to have more pesticides than any other produce, up to 67 different types. Pesticides were most often found in celery or 95 percent of those sampled, with 85 percent of the celery containing two or more chemicals.

What does this mean for consumers? For starters, it can be used as a guide for anyone who has wondered about the benefits of organic food. Knowing which fruits and vegetables are most likely to contain residual chemicals can help consumers funnel their dollars wisely. Deciding whether to splurge on organics can be a tough decision. Simply put, it is less expensive to grow food using traditional fertilizers and pesticides, which is why conventionally-grown produce costs less than organic produce.

However, even a frugal consumer can buy organic items while managing a budget. Sticking with conventionally-grown versions of the Clean Fifteen and only seeking out organic versions of the Dirty Dozen is a great way to get more bang for your buck.

The 2010 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides can be found in its entirety at www. foodnews.org/fulllist.php.

Meridith Byrd is a marine biologist and invites read ers to contact her at meridith.byrd@gmail.com.

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