Most of us have heard of the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, which outline the 12 fruits and vegetables that have been measured to have the highest level of pesticide contamination and the 15 fruits and vegetables that have been measured to have the lowest level of contamination. As beneficial as these lists are, they are also somewhat misleading.
The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen are exclusive to (fresh) produce, however, there are numerous other foods that are equally, if not more, toxic to our health in their non-organic form that are often overlooked. Learn the basics so you can make educated decisions for yourself and your family.
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But first, a few facts about organic food
All foods that are certified organic (USDA Organic or Canada Organic) are also guaranteed to be non-GMO AND restrict the use of a long list of food additives found in foods that are not organic.
Organic does not mean pesticide free. Foods that are grown organically have a strict set of guidelines they must meet in order to become certified. Synthetic chemicals are not permitted, however, certain naturally derived products are permitted on organic crops.
Eating non-organic food will not kill you or ensure you will get cancer. In fact, eating healthy whole foods that are not organic is far more beneficial to your health than avoiding these foods all together.
If you can not afford to purchase everything organic (like most of us!), opt for the foods that you consume the most often, and aim to eat a variety of foods.
Organic is not only better for your health, but also for the health of those working in the fields and for the environment.
On average, organic foods cost around 20% more. This might seem like a lot, but if you do the math it's really not. For example, if you spend 150 dollars per week on groceries and switch 30% of your groceries to organic, you will only be spending an average of 9 dollars per week extra. Cut out a couple of Starbucks drinks, a bottle of wine, a fast food lunch, or implement "meatless Mondays" and the difference is more than made up. Shopping sales is another great way to save money on organic foods. Try using an app such as Flipp to make it easy. For a more comprehensive list of ways to save money on groceries check out this post from Impact Winder.
Not everything labeled organic is the same. Based upon the USDA and Canada Organic standards, "organic" means that it is made with at least 95% organic ingredients, as opposed to "made with Organic ____", which must contain at least 70% organic ingredients (and can not display the seal). Therefore, doing a quick scan for the USDA or Canada organic seal is an easy way to guarantee a product is truly organic and complies with the standards. If the product claims to be organic and does not have a seal that's okay (many smaller companies can not afford to become certified), but it might be worth looking to see which ingredients are not organic and if they are ones of concern.
Organic doesn't mean healthy. Organic simply mean that it contains ingredients that have been grown without the use of harmful synthetic pesticides. Cake, cookies, chocolate, chips and ice cream can be organic. Organic or not, it is important to read the label to ensure the product meets your health standards. Not sure how to read a food label? Learn how here.
Beyond the Dirty Dozen: Additional Foods to Consider Buying Organic
THE DIRTY DOZEN MASH UP
If you are someone who tries their best to stick to organic for the dirty dozen, don't forget about it beyond the produce aisle. Produce is used to create a wide variety of more processed foods found in other parts of the grocery store. Due to the nature of some of these foods, they can actually contain a much greater concentration of pesticides than their raw/fresh counterparts. A few examples include apple sauce, fruit pouches, fruit leather/bars, raisins and other dried fruit, canned fruit and vegetables, frozen fruit and vegetables, canned soup, jams and jellies, sauces (such as pasta sauce and ketchup), and baby foods. If any of these are staples in your house it might be worth checking to see if an organic option is available.
Nobody needs juice (juice is high in sugar/calories, has no fibre and is typically contaminated with heavy metals such as cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic), but if it is not something you are willing to let go, at least choose organic. The most popular types of juice are generally the ones at the top of the dirty dozen list (such as apple, grape and berry). Juice is concentrated, meaning that the pesticides are as well. Choosing organic (or squeezing your own juice from organic produce) will reduce your exposure to cancer causing pesticides.
Recent studies have found considerable amounts of Glyphosate (a possible carcinogen and component in the controversial weed killer RoundUp) in oat based products at levels that far exceed what the EWG considers safe. For context, the amount of Glyphosate legally allowed in the foods we consume is 127 times greater than what the state of California (who labels everything and anything that could cause cancer with a Prop 65 warning) considers safe, and this level is still 100x more than what the EWG considers safe (read more here). For the most part, products containing organic oats have no (or very low) detectable levels of Glyphosate. When possible, opt for organic oats and oat based cereals, granola, milks, and bars. Check out some of my favourite oat based products here.
Despite what many believe, soy is beneficial to our health and does not contain estrogen or impact our hormones (learn more here). Unfortunately, most soy is both genetically modified and heavily sprayed with RoundUp (it is actually genetically modified so it can withstand the RoundUp). When consuming anything soy based (tofu, edamame, miso, tempeh, soy milk, soy sauce, etc.) choose organic, which will also ensure it is not genetically modified.
Peanuts (which are in fact not nuts and part of the legume family) are heavily sprayed and readily absorb pesticides as their skin is soft and they mature underground in contact with the soil. For this reason, buying organic peanuts and peanut butter can significantly reduce your consumption of toxic pesticides.
Side note: It is also important to purchase peanut butter in glass jars instead of plastic. Learn more.
NUTS AND SEEDS
Just as peanuts are heavily sprayed, so are nuts and seeds. Unlike peanuts, nuts and seeds are protected by a hard shell. Unfortunately, they are often treated with chemicals after they are picked to help open the shell, as a form of pasteurization or fumigation and/or to preserve them. Due to the high oil/fat content in nuts, they readily absorb the chemicals sprayed on them. When possible, aim to choose organic nuts, nut butters, nut milks and other nut based products.
Coffee is one of the most heavily sprayed crops and the use of pesticides (as well as fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides) are actually not regulated as they are for other crops. Buying organic coffee (and fair trade to support the growers) is a simple switch you can make to lower your exposure to these cancer causing chemicals. Organic, fair trade coffee is widely available and is typically reasonably priced.
Most plants used to make spices are grown overseas and are heavily sprayed. Additionally, once they are dried they need to be sterilized to kill off any bacteria. For inorganic spices, this is done by means of chemical fumigation and radiation. Harmful chemical additives are used as fillers, to prevent clumping, to change or enhance the colour, and to enhance the flavour. Inorganic spices are also highly contaminated with bugs, feces, and rodent hair, among other things. Organic spices, on the other hand, are sterilized naturally with steam, are grown with no synthetic pesticides and contain no fillers, anti-clumping agents, or flavour enhancers. Organic spices also typically come in glass jars, which contain no BPA or other harmful chemicals and are better for the environment. Spending a dollar or two extra on a jar of spice that will last a year seems like a no brainer!