Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Clean 15, Dirty Dozen, and what we should do about it

How I wish the "Dirty Dozen" was simply a film to be studied. It would make eating that much less of a strategic game, trying to balance cost versus the health of entire families. Unfortunately, it's not. The Dirty Dozen is a serious list put out by the FDA and Environmental Working Group (EWG) of the twelve foods that are most likely to have pesticide residue on them. Keep in mind the "most likely" part of that sentence. It in no ways guarantees that if one buys organic fruits and vegetables that are on that list, but buys regular produce otherwise the person will be protected from ingesting chemicals. It only suggests that the best bet is to at least eat those twelve foods organically grown, if not all foods. In fact, it's extraordinarily sad that there is a list at all. I once heard a great idea that it shouldn't be "organic apples" or "organic cotton" it should be "apples" and "cotton" and then those mainstream items would be labeled "apples sprayed with these toxins" or "cotton treated with these pesticides" - I'm willing to bet we'd see the prices of organics go down quickly and we'd see the industrial farm industry change its habits fairly quickly.

But unfortunately, we still live in a world where we need to follow a list of foods that WILL contain toxins if we do not purchase organic, and have to hedge our bets on the rest of our produce. No wonder convenience foods haven't lost their appeal after the recent health movement - at least those list what crap is going into their customers, whereas in produce, it's completely unknown.

The list, which includes mostly foods that consumers will eat with the skins on is as follows:
1. Peaches
2. Apples
3. Bell Peppers
4. Celery
5. Cherries
6. Nectarines
7. Strawberries
8. Kale
9. Lettuce
10. Imported Grapes (yet another reason the local farmer's market is so appealing)
11. Carrots
12. Pears

In conjunction with the "dirty dozen" list, there is also a "clean fifteen" list that appeared at the same time. These are the 15 produce items "least" likely to contain pesticides - but again, notice the language. There are no guarantees - even in the "best choice" scenarios, the language still requires the word "least". The clean fifteen are as follows:
1. Onion
2. Avocado
3. Sweet Corn
4. Pineapple
5. Mango
6. Asparagus
7. Sweet Peas
8. Kiwi
9. Cabbage
10. Eggplant
11. Papaya
12. Watermelon
13. Broccoli
14. Tomato
15. Sweet Potato

Not surprisingly, the list includes mostly produce that has a thick skin that will be peeled off. I recently read an article that said that even potatoes, which one would think would be less likely to contain pesticides, can contain immense amounts of pesticides, and the toxins can even penetrate up to 1/4 inch below the skin. The article recommended buying organic, or peeling off the skin and soaking in cold water before boiling. Makes enjoying a baked potato a little harder, doesn't it?

Sadly, it seems to me that the best solution is in 4 parts. First, if you can find a local farm, purchase all of your produce, beef, eggs, and milk from them. Many small, local farms follow all of the organic standards (actually, most far exceed the minimal standards set forth by the government) but do not have the funds to get the certification. The beauty part of a local farm is that you can actually speak with the farmer - ask about what methods are used. If you are friendly enough, they might even take a request for a certain crop from you. It is also a bonus to be able to see where your food comes from without having to worry what is going on behind closed doors so to speak. If no local farm is available, I would suggest step two - go the the local farmer's markets. There you will be able to find many local (or more local than not) farmers with a great variety. Typically, the people manning the tables are employees of the farm and can answer any and all questions. The third option would be to eat all organic foods from the grocery store. This, of course is the least desirable because the costs will be the highest - both in your wallet, and in the amount of waste created by shipping the food to the market. However, this is still a good option if you cannot find anything locally. Finally, the fourth suggestion would be to contact everyone you can. Write to your local grocery store that you would like to see more organic and local produce. Write to your local farmers that you would like to see a bigger presence at the farmer's market. Write your the person in charge of events in your town and present ideas to expand your farmer's market, or create one if none exists. Write to your senators and representatives - both state and federal - requesting that they represent YOU, their constituents, rather than the industrial farming companies when they vote for stricter laws on what our food is allowed to be exposed to. Write to your family, your friends, your children, your church, and help spread the word about what is in our food. It's an uphill battle, but we have the man power to get to the top - it just takes a little effort from all of us.

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