The Lowdown on Organic Food
By Denise Minger
First and foremost, my apologies for the shortage of blog entries this month—and the sluggish replies to emails. I’m currently exploring the balmy islands of Hawaii, expanding my repertoire of exotic fruit while gifting the mosquitoes with two sacrificial offerings of flesh (my legs). Holy insect swarms, Batman! Expect a steadier stream of updates once I’m back on the mainland and not spending half of my waking hours itching.
Here’s a subject near and dear to any raw foodist’s heart: organics. Given the amount of produce most of us scarf down, it’s only logical that the quality of our food—and any chemical residue it ushers into our body—should be a major concern. It would be wonderful if everything we put in our mouths was free from pesticides, untouched by toxins, and grown in a way that was healthy for both the land and for our bodies.
Most people assume that means buying organic.
Unfortunately, for your average non-millionaire Joe Schmoe raw foodist, organic foods have two obvious strikes against them. One: they typically bear a higher (sometimes astronomically so) price tag than their conventional counterparts, and two: some towns and cities have limited availability of organic produce—which means less variety and sometimes less freshness for you.
Alas, it doesn’t end there. For those of us seeking a squeaky-clean diet that won’t stab Mother Earth in the back, organics are not necessarily the holy grail we’re looking for. Check out these misconceptions.
Myth 1. Buying organic means you’re supporting small farms, family-owned businesses, your next-door neighbor Hank who grows chemical-free cucumbers, and all those other nice people who battle big, evil, pesticide-spraying corporations.
If only this were true! The reality is that most producers of organic food also crank out billions of dollars worth of conventional items. Rather than caring tenderly for the earth and its inhabitants, some of these companies simply realized that they can make a prettier penny cashing in on the organics niche, selling less product for a higher cost. Take Cascadian Farm, for example—maker of the organic frozen fruit you’ve probably seen lining the shelves of your grocer’s freezer. Far from a quaint family-run farm, Cascadian Farm is owned by General Mills. Yep, that’s right: the same mega-corp that makes fruit roll-ups, Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Gushers candy, Lucky Charms, Hamburger Helper, and a laundry list of other foods that don’t belong near anyone’s lips.
Bottom line: unless you’re getting your organic food straight from a farm or at a farmers’ market, chances are you’re still padding the pockets of those giant unsavory companies.
Myth 2. Organic food doesn’t contain any harmful or toxic substances.
Unfortunately, this is not only a common myth, but a potentially dangerous one because it implies organic food is safe to eat without washing. How far from the truth this is! Organic does not mean “pesticide free” or “chemical free.” Organic growers do shun synthetic chemicals, but many make liberal use of organic fungicides and pesticides—often at much higher concentrations than conventional growers use, since organic pesticides are generally less effective than synthetic ones. Organic produce can carry residues of nicotine (used as an insecticide), pyrethrum (“a likely human carcinogen,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency), rotenone (a potent carcinogen)… the list goes on. About half of the most common organic pesticides used have cancer-causing properties, according to Bruce Ames (inventor of the famous Ames toxicology test), and the ones that don’t are frequently harmful or lethal to birds, fish, and small mammals.
Myth 3. All conventional produce has pesticide residue when you eat it.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, this is no longer the case. Some modern synthetic pesticides (known as “non-persistent pesticides”) have such a rapid break-down rate that by the time they leave the farm, they’re no longer detectable on the fruits and vegetables they originally coated. Depending on where your food is sourced, conventional produce may have even less pesticide residue than organically-grown varieties.
Why does everyone say organic food isn’t as toxic as conventional?
For many years, it was simply assumed that organic, botanically-derived pesticides wouldn’t cause any harm to the human body—the whole “natural is healthy” mantra. In fact, organic pesticides weren’t even the subject of toxicology studies until fairly recently; only synthetic pesticides were examined for their damaging and carcinogenic effects. Once the research spotlight fell on organic chemicals, their own dangers became apparent—but due to pervading myths and pressure from the highly lucrative organic niche, this information hasn’t received the attention it deserves.
In other words…
Don’t freak out if you can’t afford a completely organic diet. Although organic foods do seem to taste better much of the time and are often grown in better soils (which is the reason for the better taste), you aren’t dooming yourself to a toxic overload if you eat some—or even entirely—conventionally grown food. And when it comes to nutritional content of your fruits and veggies, organic-versus-conventional matters less thanfreshness—the total transit time from the tree or bush to your dinner plate. Spinach, for instance, loses half of its folate within a week of being picked. Yikes, right?
Whether your purchases are organic or conventional, you can remove some lingering pesticide residue with a homemade or store-bought produce wash. Try spritzing your fruits and veggies with a mixture of 90% water and 10% food-grade hydrogen peroxide, then scrub those puppies clean with a sponge or vegetable scrubber. Alternatively, you can use a spray made from a mixture of water (1 cup), baking soda (2 tablespoons), vinegar (1 cup), and grapefruit seed extract (20 drops)—or even double the recipe, pour it into a pot, and let your food sit in it for a few minutes before washing it off thoroughly with warm water. If you can find a chemical-free fruit and veggie wash containing grapefruit seed extract at the store, that can do the job as well.
Be aware, though, that as soon as you wash any produce in this manner, it won’t store for very long before going bad—so wait until you’re ready to eat your fruits and veggies before giving them the de-pesticiding treatment.
What’s safest to eat?
Some foods generally require less pesticides and fungicides than others, whether grown conventionally or organically, simply because pests don’t attack them much. The absolute safest raw foods to eat, in terms of low pesticide residue, are…
(Drum roll please)
• Corn (fresh/raw)
• Sweet peas
• Sweet potatoes
Some other not-so-bad choices include:
• Honeydew melons
And on the flip side, the most pesticide-laden raw foods include:
• Bell peppers
Note: you don’t need to completely give up the foods on the last list (I’m definitely never bidding farewell to my beloved strawberries), but it’d be wise not to center your diet on them—unless you have a source of truly pesticide-free varieties.
Get to know your source. If you shop at a co-ops or farmers’ market, you’ll be able to track down specific farms fairly easily—meaning you can contact your food source directly and inquire about their pesticide and fungicide use.
Grow your own and forage. Whenever possible, take your food production into your own hands: pick wild edibles, grow herbs or greens on your windowsill, plant strawberries in your garden—whatever your climate and living situation allows.
A 100% chemical-free diet might not always be practical or possible, but with proper planning, we can choose our produce wisely to minimize the damage.