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By Lee Euler
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Organic Foods: Are They Really Worth the Price?
In the last decade, the trend to buy organic has grown exponentially. But what if it's really just a fad? Has anyone really confirmed the benefits of eating food grown without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers?
I'm not the sort of guy who has a "Question Authority" bumper sticker on my car, but I've sure learned to distrust so-called experts and look into things for myself. So let's take a close look at one of the sacred cows of alternative cancer treatment: the rule that you should eat organic food only.
The idea of eating 100% organic sounds good. But, the high price of organic foods versus conventionally grown foods means a big jump in your grocery budget. Hang on, because I'm going to tell you an easy way to reduce your pesticide intake as much as 80 percent without going totally organic and turning your life upside down.
Organic fruits and vegetables cost an average 24 cents more per pound than conventionally grown produce. Certified organic milk is $6 per gallon compared to $3.50 for regular milk — almost double the price. With prices like that, we have to ask, "Is it worth the extra money?"
The prevailing reason to pay extra for your produce is to avoid consuming pesticides. It makes sense to avoid chemical pesticides because they've been shown to cause cancer, as demonstrated by a National Cancer Institute (NCI) study. Conducted from 1999-2002, the NCI study revealed people with high exposures to pesticides, such as farmers and crop dusters, have high rates of cancer. They're more susceptible to a huge range of cancer types ranging from blood and lymphatic system cancers to cancers of the lip, stomach, lung, brain and prostate, to melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
As I mentioned in a previous newsletter, I grew up in farm country and the cancer rate in my home county is extraordinarily high.
Scores of research studies conducted over several years by the USDA and the FDA found significant amounts of pesticide residues in conventionally farmed fruits, vegetables, and meats. So you may not be a farmer, but you're eating what they produce. Personally, I have a hunch — and that's all it is — that chemicals in our food may be the big smoking gun — the number one cause of cancer.
In the U.S. alone, over 1 billion tons of pesticides are used every year. A USDA report that came out in 2008 showed some varieties of fruits and vegetables contained as many as 67 types of pesticides in a SINGLE product. These are the chemicals found after washing and rinsing.
And meat products are big-time carriers of pest killers as well, with up to ten different chemicals found in meats like beef and pork. One reason is that animals consume pesticide-laden feeds and those feeds get concentrated in the animals' tissues.
Pesticides and Cancer: What's the Connection?
Pesticides are a combination of chemicals used to repel or destroy crop-damaging pests like insects and diseases. Most farmers rely on pesticides to promote a good looking crop and to avoid losing their crops to pest damage.
As a toxin aimed to kill and ward off pests, it seems fair to assume pesticides are harmful to human health. But just how bad are they? And how exposed are you to the toxic substances in your everyday food?
Pesticides lurk in tons of foods. Strawberries are coated with pesticides during the growing and shipping process. Meats are tinged with chemicals because livestock gets doused in pesticides to protect their skin. Then they're fed grain that's packed with its own pesticide residue.
Peeling the skin off produce helps reduce the amount of pesticides you ingest, but it's not always the solution; pesticides in water and soil can work their way throughout the whole fruit or vegetable. This whole issue may go well beyond how much pesticide is on (and in) foods. So washing the surface may be a partial fix, at best.
I'm working on this and hope to report on it in the future, but my theory is that the billions of tons of pesticides that have been dumped on crops in the last half century have found their way into the groundwater, from which they get taken up into every living thing. I doubt that conventional filtering systems remove all these poisons and the water supply in many cities may be heavily contaminated. Let me stress that I don't have all the facts yet.
But you should be worried. . .
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 90% of fungicides, 60% of herbicides, and 30% of insecticides found on food crops are considered causes of cancer. To top it off, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found traces of more than ten fruit and vegetable pesticides in the blood samples of 96% of the 5,000 Americans in the study. That means virtually every man, woman and child in the United States has pesticides circulating in their blood.
How Much is Too Much?
So the facts are: government departments agree many pesticides cause cancer, people with high exposure have a high rate of getting cancer, and the carcinogens are traceable in the bloodstreams of most Americans. Yet, on an official level, the government claims that low levels of pesticides consumed by the average American are harmless.
I'd rest easier knowing this was a thorough analysis, but in reality, not all fruit and vegetable pesticides are properly tested. The CDC, for instance, has tested Americans for only 32 of the 215 pesticides detected on fresh fruits and vegetables since 2001.
Plus, even while the EPA banned 6,224 pesticides for food use, new pesticides have been brought into use — pesticides that companies claim are safer ... but that's just a claim until proven otherwise. Government agencies have a long history of looking the other way when the interests of powerful industries are involved.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition says that organic fruits and vegetables differ very little in nutritional value from conventionally grown produce. Backers of conventional farming use research findings like this to prove there is no difference in the amount of nutrients you get in conventional versus organic.
But who said anything about nutrients? These people are missing the point. The main issue when choosing organic versus non-organic food is the level of toxins NOT the level of nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Some advocates of organic food claim such foods are richer in nutrients — and this is certainly an important concern -- but it's not what I'm talking about at the moment. I'm concerned with the level of poisons — i.e. whether non-organic foods contain carcinogens.
Spend-Savvy Solutions to Eating Organic
I, for one, am a big believer in buying organic. If nothing else, it helps me avoid the toxic additives found in regular processed foods. But there's good news for cost-cutting shoppers. Some non-organic foods are relatively free of pesticide residue, so if you're on a budget you can skip some organic purchases and save money.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) conducts an annual report of the cleanest and dirtiest fruits and vegetables. Their goal is to figure out which ones should be bought organic and which ones are okay if purchased non-organic. Based on data from 90,000 pesticide residue tests (collected by the USDA and FDA), EWG published an easy-to-remember list called the "Dirty Dozen" and the "Clean Fifteen."
Take a look at the winners and losers of the produce study:
If a person were to consume five fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list, he or she would consume an average of 10 pesticides daily. If someone were to eat the same daily amount from the cleanest conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, he or she would eat only two pesticides a day.
Celery is the dirtiest vegetable of all, with a whopping 67 pesticides found in a whole stalk. Chemicals latch onto its unprotected stem, and celery's inward cupped shape makes it harder to wash and scrub all the pesticides off the surface.
The peach ranks as the dirtiest fruit because those 67 different chemicals soak into its fuzzy, sponge-like skin and are almost impossible to wash off. The peach has an absorbent surface compared to the smooth, shiny surface of an apple. Its delicate structure leaves it more susceptible to bruising and pests, so farmers spray it more frequently during the growing process.
The onion is the cleanest, safest vegetable to buy from a conventional grower. The need to spray pesticides is kept to a minimum because onions enjoy natural protection from many pests. The testing data reviewed by EWG found no more than one pesticide on a typical onion.
The cleanest fruit is the pineapple because its tough, prickly skin works as a reliable armor against pesticides, diseases, and chemicals. Once the skin is peeled, testing reveals there are very few pesticides. Cantaloupes and other melons are similar in that you don't eat the rind. You only eat the inner fruit, which is relatively protected from pesticides.
The rule of thumb is that the skin of a fruit or vegetable contains the most pesticides. If you peel peaches, you avoid a large part of the pesticide exposure. And conventionally grown berries such as strawberries and blueberries are more dangerous because nobody peels berries (now THAT would be a challenge!)
The Shopping Verdict IsÖ
Pesticides are dirty little fiends that can be very harmful to human health. Unfortunately, they are found in many of the foods we eat. But please don't let this discourage you from eating fresh fruits and vegetables. Before we get carried away with the possible dangers of regularly grown fruits and vegetables, consider the fact that any fresh produce is still more nutritious than a diet of processed foods.
It's all a matter of balance. If a fully organic diet is too expensive or too hard to come by, there are plenty of guilt-free options to cut down the amount of pesticides in your foods.
A CNN news clip from June 2010 reports that by buying only organic from the "Dirty Dozen" list alone, you can reduce your intake of pesticides by 80%. You can then go right on buying the "Clean Fifteen" foods even if they've been grown with pesticides.
I don't recommend this plan for someone who has cancer. From what I've learned about people who succeed in beating the disease, you need to go 100% organic. But if you're healthy and seeking to PREVENT cancer you can reap a large part of the benefit of an organic diet — 80% of the benefit -- without going organic all the way. You'll benefit from a slimmer food budget and still receive the full value of the vitamins and minerals in those fruits and vegetables.
Buying the clean conventional foods will make a big difference in your pesticide consumption. It's a good half-measure, especially if you're on a budget. I'm in favor of doing something, not throwing up your hands and doing NOTHING.
Every step counts in making healthy choices for cancer prevention. Consider this on your next visit to the grocery store.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "Pesticides — The EPA and Food Security." EPA., 2004.
TIME Magazine. "What's So Great About Organic Foods?" September 2010.
CNN News. "'Dirty Dozen' Produce Carries More Pesticide Residue, Group Says." June 2010. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/06/01/dirty.dozen.produce.pesticide/index.html.
NIH Cancer Trends Progress Report, 2009/2010. http://progressreport.cancer.gov/
EWG's Shopper's Guide to Reduce Pesticide Exposure. http://www.foodnews.org/reduce.php
Prevention. "Dirty Dozen: Fruits & Veggies to Buy Organic." June 2010.
"Why do you need organic food?" (Dr. Mercola)
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