August 15, 2011

Should You Panic If It's Not Organic?

It's not like you hit the grocery store thinking: mmm, what kind of yummy pesticides do I want on my produce today? If you're like me, you might actually prefer to fill your cart with wholesome, natural, organic fruits and vegetables. You want those fruits and veggies to be ripe, unwilted, locally grown, in-season, not full of bugs and worms, untainted by salmonella or e coli, and reasonably priced. Oh, and you'd like Alice Waters or Jamie Oliver to stop by your house and cook it all up for you, while you have a cocktail or two with your bff's Rachel Maddow, Ricky Gervais, Ellen Degeneris, John Stewart, Emma Thompson, George Clooney, and Michelle Obama.

Make Mine a Double, Willya Crabby? Been a Tough Week.

Okay, I'll admit, we're talking pure fantasy... that part about the reasonably priced organic produce.

So let's say, hypothetically, that there may be a few fruits and vegetables that have made their way into your kitchen that are not organic. Even worse, what if some of these items appear on the Environmental Working Group's dreaded list of most pesticide-laden produce, dubbed "The Dirty Dozen?"

How big a deal is it?  Well, I was just alerted to a study that may have some relevance.

Pesticide Researchers say: Screw Organic, the Regular Stuff is Just Fine!

A study of dietary exposure to pesticide residue in the Journal of Toxicology took aim at the EWG's Dirty Dozen list, criticizing their methodology and disputing their findings.

The researchers concluded that:

(1) Exposures to the pesticides on the "Dirty Dozen" list posed negligible risks to consumers; (2) eating organic versions of the "Dirty Dozen" didn't appreciably reduce risk; and (3) the methodology used by the EWG lacked scientific credibility.

For example, the study said that exposure to the pesticides on apples, which were number one on the 2011 Dirty Dozen list, were "well below levels of toxicological concern, with relative exposures between 20,000 and 28 million times lower than levels that do not harm laboratory animals." Even better, for 3 others of the tainted twelve, blueberries, cherries, and kale – the pesticide exposure was over 30 million times lower than those that cause no observable adverse effects in lab animals. (Bell peppers, on the other hand, were the worst at 49.5 times lower).

But Wait Crabby, Where Did You Find This Study?

Why in an email sent from the completely unbiased source, the "Let's Convince Folks That Processed Food and Agribusiness are Totally Awesome So We Can All Make A Crapload of Money Council" the International Food Information Council! How do we know we can trust them? Well, another conveniently highlighted newsletter article was entitled: "Is Industry Funded Research Trustworthy?" And while the article doesn't actually ever answer that question, by mentioning it in an article title you can be reassured that they're all over it! So no worries.

Shouldn't I Trust The Environmental Working Group More than Food Industry Apologists?

Hell, I don't know; they both have their own axes to grind. The EWG are the same folks who think the sunscreen my dermatologist urges me to use will poison me, and listening to them is always depressing. I'd prefer they be wrong, so I can go about my business like ordinary Americans, cheerfully oblivious to all the environmental dangers that may surround me.

Problem is, I'm not an scientist, so when advocacy agendas clash and both sides cite scientific research, I need actual experts to weigh in. Anyone got one handy? There were things about the Toxicology Journal article that sounded vaguely suspicious to me, like using a "probabilistic modeling approach to estimate exposures." Or this sentence: "Residue findings considered as nondetections were assigned a value of zero...rather than using the much more conservative approach of considering nondetectable residues as being to one-half of the detection limits." But again--what the heck do I know?

So Are You Going To Start Buying A Lot More Produce That's Treated with Pesticides?

No way! Not only because I don't want ANY pesticides if I can avoid them, but because I want to support the stores and suppliers that don't use them. Perhaps if there was more of a market, prices would go down! But I think when organic isn't available, and I'm contemplating a tasty looking carton of fresh ripe conventionally grown blueberries, they have a much better chance of ending up in my grocery cart after reading the above toxicology study, even if I don't entirely understand it.

What about you guys--do you try to buy organic when you can? Or the heck with that, who would you invite to your celebrity BFF cocktail party?


  1. Crabby, I don't buy organic all that often. I have from time to time. We are blessed to eat plenty of garden fresh that is organic so I don't worry about the commercial chemicals I eat. Husband can't eat commercial strawberries raw due to whatever treatment they get, but otherwise we buy and eat as we please.

  2. It has to depend on my food budget for that week. I try to buy organic when it is something I do not peel before eating but that is not always possible. The lists all say to buy organic bananas but I do not understand why when their peel is so think and not eaten.
    I do tend to buy organic carrots all the time.

    My invite list: George Clooney, Emma Thompson, Whoopie Goldberg, Tom Hanks, Christiane Amanpour.

  3. Jane, awesome party guests--can I come too just to eavesdrop?

  4. It's too late! We have saturated our world with chemicals. They are in everything and everybody. In my opinion, buy what you can afford, eat plenty of fruits and veggies, be active, and smart with your behaviors.

  5. I tend to panic anyway, just to be on the safe side. There's always something I should be panicking about... right?

  6. I don't tend to buy organic because I can't really afford it. Which is really unfortunate because my favorites, the bell peppers, are always high on the pesticide list.

    It seems like a trade-off: is it better health wise that I eat a bell pepper a day, if it's coming from the dollar store (2 for a $1 for orange once - I almost cried the first time I saw them) or if I eat less than one pepper a week, but it's organic ($5+/lb for orange ones usually)? Does the pesticide concentration outweigh regular fruit and vegetable eating?

    I did fing this homemade produce cleaner though, if anyone was interested. Best of both worlds maybe? (I like it's natural ingredients, though the pesticide cleaners that are full of chemicals are almost entertainingly ironic.)

  7. I try to buy organic as much as possible. We grow a small garden, so that helps. Organic can sometimes be so expensive though. Why is that?
    My party list....Sam Elliot,Mathew McConahay ( I don't think I spelled that right) George Clooney.Good looking guys like that.
    Oh and BTW, You too could have your very own animal track table, If your interested.

  8. i used to be an organic fanatic til someone pointed out the bad working conditions of many organic farms abroad and the carbon footprint of shipping it. i make sure i wash produce very well, tho.

    Georgie Pie is visiting my cocktail party sooo.... get in line! :D

  9. I'm shamelessly biased because I was a health food store co-owner. I try to buy organic as much as possible and try to make up for any higher costs by cutting out something else. I read that article also. Here's my logic. If the EWG is wrong, I only wasted some money. But if the other guys are wrong...

  10. We buy as much organic as we can afford, to support the industry. Local is loved, too.

    Other than that, just lots of produce; it's better to have them eating it than not.

  11. Ahhh... worrying about stuff like this is what got me orthorexic. Good times! Honestly, I'd prefer to eat (and feed my family) 100% organic but that's just not do-able so instead I buy what I can and try not to think about the chemical slurry my loved ones are chugging...

  12. I figure that I buy veggies and fruit because they're good for me, that the pesticides stop me from becoming a bug or infested by them is just a bonus, RIGHT? I do taste a difference when I hit the lottery every few weeks and can afford to spend $3 more on the same amount of 1 pond of veggies, though. HA! Not happening. If the org's are on sale, I'll grab them instead, but I figure I grew up eating the stuff my kids are eating now and it hasn't hindered my development yet. (unless you count the crazy) And I also vaccinate my kids (except for chicken pox) and I also spank and cuss. I'm a HORRIBLE person, but I'm ok with that.

  13. If I could afford organic for everything, I probably would buy organic just because it seems better even with all the conflicting reports. I do try to buy a few of the dirt dozen but I just can't afford it in general.

    I love your list of guests big time! I might add Bon Jovi, Hugh Jackman & "the Rock" to look at for me, ;-) and I love Barbra Streisand too so she & Bon Bovi can sing & chat! :-)

  14. I try to buy organic when I can find any (which now that I live over forty miles from my coop isn't often) but I prefer to buy local non-organic to organic from a thousand miles away. What I prefer most is organic from my own garden, but that hasn't worked too well the last two years.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  15. Afterthought: I'm more concerned about what chemical farming is doing to the soil than about what it's doing to me.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

  16. I'm trying to use and eat things with at little chemicals as possible. Living in HK, either I burn a hole in my wallet buying expensive imported organic produce OR eat hormone-injected, possibly poisonous foods from China. Haha. Either way I'm kinda screwed!

  17. I just wanted to post a clarification of our newsletter article that Crabby mentions...We chose to highlight the study looking at pesticide levels in EWG’s “dirty dozen” produce because of concern over the message the “dirty dozen” sends. The importance of eating more fruits and vegetables is highlighted by the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, it’s a confusing message to recommend not to eat certain ones. The researcher who conducted the study and wrote the newsletter article is highly regarded in the field of toxicology and has done numerous studies in this area, so we were very comfortable highlighting his work.

    The intended takeaway of the second article is that trustworthiness of science should be based on the quality of the research. Sound science is sound science whether its industry funded or not. I apologize if that point did not get across.

    We write about these issues all the time on our blog at where our goal is to communicate the consensus science on food and health issues. Come check us out if you're interested!

    -Eric Mittenthal
    Media Relations Director
    International Food Information Council Foundation

  18. Thanks Eric! I'm always grateful (and a bit amazed) when those involved in conducting, analyzing, or publicizing health research actually find our half-assed little operation here and take the time to comment! Thanks for stopping in and clarifying.

    And thanks all for the thoughts & suggestions--like the pesticide cleaner idea, Midknyt!

  19. I've always tried to be proactive on organic, buying it when I lived in the city (St. Louis). Now that we have some land I just plant a huge garden and can/freeze the surplus. I don't buy much for vegetables anymore. And I load up on good organic fruit at the farmers market in the summer and freeze it for the winter. (Okay, I still buy bananas weekly.) But anyway...

    I really stepped up my organic game when my kids came along. I may be far enough down the road to not fret much about the pesticides, but those little ones have a lot more concern. Not to mention the number of chemicals being identified as hormone disruptors. And "fruit/vegetable washes" may get the grime off the outside, but crops grown in pesticide laden soil means the pesticide is throughout the whole fruit. Ick.

    So yeah - I think it's worth panicking about. Also - I'm with Dr. J, except I don't think it's too late. It's time to overhaul the system. And that starts by "voting" with your dollars. Don't get me started on factory farms...

  20. Using pesticide has always been a method used by producers for us to get better organics. To avoid, I guess, having more intakes of those chemicals, we should prepare our organic foods properly before we eat them. Like wash them very well before you eat them specially with those that is not peeled before eating.


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