Natural Options: The 10 Most Important Foods to Buy Organic

By Stevens, Francine; Lydon, Betsy | E Magazine, September-October 1997 | Go to article overview

Natural Options: The 10 Most Important Foods to Buy Organic


Stevens, Francine, Lydon, Betsy, E Magazine


In 1984, Elizabeth Ryan bought a farm in New York's mid-Hudson Valley. The farm and orchard had been managed conventionally for many years, but Ryan decided to severely restrict the use of chemical pesticides. Her farm is now run under an Integrated Pest Management (IPM) system, which uses chemicals only as a last resort. "When I see my customers, I am reminded that I am directly accountable for the way I grow my food," she says.

September is National Organic Harvest month, a good time to reflect on what's in our food. Unfortunately, pesticides are part of the mix. Of the 300 pesticides approved by the federal government, 73 (including some of the most frequently used) are "probable" or "possible" carcinogens. Cancer, however, is not the only health problem linked with pesticide-ridden food. Pesticides known as organophosphates and carbonates are neurotoxins that can cause nervous system damage.

Children are at a heightened risk from pesticides, because they eat more food relative to their body weight and because their nervous systems are still developing. And according to the National Research Council, children eat more fresh fruit than adults, which can expose them to multiple pesticides. An alternative is to go organic, which means eating food produced without chemical pesticides or fertilizers. "Certified Organic" products, which have been approved by state-certified organic boards, carry a guarantee that the product was grown and handled according to strict procedures.

Most people don't make the switch to naturally-grown overnight, but if you want a good place to start, here's a list of 10 foods to buy organic for the sake of both personal and planetary health:

Baby Food. The National Academy of Sciences reported in 1993 that federal pesticide standards provide too little health protection for infants. Building on those conclusions, the Washington-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) commissioned laboratory tests of eight baby foods made by industry leaders Gerber, Heinz and Beech-Nut. Some 16 pesticides were found, including three carcinogens, live possible carcinogens, eight neurotoxins, five endocrine disruptors (which can mimic or interfere with hormones) and five very dangerous "toxicity one" chemicals. More than half of the samples - 53 percent - had detectable pesticide levels. Organic baby food is widely available (Earth's Best and Well-Fed Baby are two supermarket brands), and you can also make your own by cooking, pureeing and freezing organic fruits and vegetables.

Strawberries. The fresh, sweet strawberries you buy in the supermarket are the single most heavily contaminated fruit or vegetable in the U.S., according to another 1993 EWG study. Seventy percent of all strawberries tested contained at least one pesticide, and 36 percent contained two or more. Strawberries are also laced with endocrine disruptors. According to Consumer Union's Pest Management at the Crossroads, strawberries can receive a dose of 500 pounds of pesticides per acre. Out-of-season strawberries are the most likely to have been imported, possibly from a country with less-stringent pesticide regulations. Organic brands include Golden River Farms, Cascadian Farms and Boulder Fruit Express.

Rice. An incredible 70 to 80 percent of the world's calories come from rice. Because rice allergies are practically nonexistent, rice is a primary ingredient in baby cereals and snacks. Both water-soluble herbicides and insecticides have contaminated groundwater near rice fields in California's Sacramento River valley. The herbicide 2,4,5T, used as a defoliant in Vietnam, was commonly sprayed on rice fields until it was banned in 1984. Many different types of rice are available organically (from Eagle Agricultural Products, Lundberg Family Farms and MacDougall's Wild Rice). And like most grains, rice can be bought in money-saving bulk.

Oats and other grains. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends six to 11 servings of grains daily. …

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