We all want to reduce our exposure to cancer-causing pesticides and other chemicals, but with the expense of food it may not be realistic to go completely organic. By prioritizing which foods you buy organically you can keep your grocery bill within budget and make the biggest health impact.
Organic foods, as defined and regulated by the US Agriculture Department (USDA), are grown and produced without pesticides, synthetic or sewer fertilizer, antibiotics and are not irradiated or genetically modified. Most people think of produce when they think about buying organic, but all types of meat and dairy products contain high levels of contaminants. Organic milk is a great place to start, especially if your kids drink a lot of it.
When it comes to produce, the following crops are consistently the most pesticide laden: tree fruit, berries, spinach, bell peppers, potatoes, celery and grapes. You can reduce your family’s pesticide exposure by 80% by buying only these items organic! Buying organic spinach is a much wiser use of money than buying organic broccoli, orange juice or oatmeal. You can also save money by buying fresh produce when it is in season and cheaper. As you shop for organic produce in grocery stores and farmer’s markets, be aware that there will be more scarring and abnormal shapes. It is only through fertilizers, genetically modified seeds and pesticide use that produce grows with perfect skin, uniform shape and large sizes. As long as there is no bruising or punctures, enjoy oddly shaped squash; kids get a kick out of it.
Your prioritized organic grocery list
milk (and other dairy)
apples (apple sauce, juice)
spinach (and leafy greens)
potatoes (not sweet potatoes)
meat (buy wild fish)
How to get started:
For families just getting started, I often recommend making one to three organic swaps at a time, to make the transition easier on your wallet. This year, commit to buying only organic apples and milk. Make it a habit before you make another change. Next year make two more switches, organic spinach and potatoes. By making a few small changes at a time, you will not notice a change in your grocery bill.
Taking it to the next level:
After you have mastered the organic priorities list, continue adding more organic foods to your cart. I suggest foods that will improve your health and the planet’s first. Conventional farming uses huge amounts of energy and fuel for harvest and worldwide transport, causing air pollution. Animal waste and pesticide runoff pollute our groundwater and soil. Buying organic foods protects the environment and your health. Buy organic corn and corn products, soy, soy products and rice. Stop buying, or drastically reduce your consumption of meat, prawns and farmed fish as these farming practices cause tremendous amounts of water pollution and land destruction.
Keep in mind that organic is not synonymous with healthy. Prepackaged, organic foods and meals can contain high amounts of salt, fat and sugar just like regular packaged foods. You will need to read labels to ensure something is healthy in addition to being organic. Organic, processed foods are the most expensive type of organic food with the smallest health benefit. Organic package foods like crackers, cookies or burritos would be the last organic switch to make.
When organic foods are most important:
- If you are pregnant, it is very important to eat organic foods. Pesticides and other chemicals can be passed from mother to child in the womb. Chemicals are passed through breast milk as well. Some chemicals can cause delayed effects on the nervous system, even years after the initial exposure.
- If you have a baby in the house, you should only serve organic baby food packaged, stored and warmed in glass, not plastic. Babies are highly susceptible to chemical exposure and because they spend months eating a large portion of their food from a jar, their exposure is quite high. Chemical exposure at an early age can cause developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and motor dysfunction.
Keep in mind:
The benefits of eating produce (organic or not) far outweigh the risks of consuming pesticide residue, so I would never discourage eating non-organic produce. At the very least, you need to wash all fruit and vegetables with water to reduce the amount of chemicals and bacteria on the produce.
Danielle Federico, M.P.H. is the author of “MOMMY FABULOUS: Complete Pregnancy Fitness and Nutrition Guide, Designed to Deliver a Fabulous Postpartum Figure.” (amazon.com) She holds a Masters of Public Health from UC Berkeley and is a personal trainer and nutritional counselor. Danielle’s popular blog www.dani-fabulous.com provides nutrition, health and fitness information for anyone looking to lead a healthier life.