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What are the most important foods to buy organic?

How to spend your organic budget wisely 

Q: What are the most important foods to buy organic?

A: Given the typically higher prices of organic versus conventionally grown foods, it can be a challenge to get the biggest bang for our buck while eating healthy and avoiding the ingestion of synthetic chemicals along with our nutrients. One approach, say some experts, is to only buy organic when the actual edible parts of a non-organically grown food might come into direct contact with toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that consumers can reduce their chemical exposure by some 80 percent by either avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown fruits and vegetables altogether or by eating only the organic varieties. To help us sort through what and what not to buy, the group offers a Shopper's Guide to Pesticides, which fits on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your pocket and have handy on grocery trips. You can print it out for free from EWG's FoodNews.org website, or you can download it as a free app for your iPhone.

To make it easy to use, EWG has distilled its analysis into two lists. The first, "Dirty Dozen," lists foods that when grown conventionally contain the largest amounts of pesticide and fertilizer residues. These are: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/ collard greens, potatoes and imported grapes. Consumers should definitely spend the extra money for organic versions of these foods.

On the other side of the coin, EWG's "Clean 15" list includes foods that contain the least amount of chemical residues when grown conventionally. These are: onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangos, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and honeydew. It's OK to eat conventionally grown varieties of these foods.

EWG analysts developed the Clean 15 guide using data from some 89,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2008 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What's the difference, you may ask? EWG found that by eating five conventionally grown fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list, a consumer on average ingests 10 different pesticides; those who stick to the Clean 15 list ingest fewer than two.

Other foods you and your family eat, such as meats, cereals, breads and dairy products, might also be exposing you to unwanted chemicals. According to EWG, the direct health benefits of organic meat, eggs and milk are less clear, but you should play it safe by sticking with all-natural, free-range, grass-fed meats that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and by choosing only organic dairy products.

Thanks to increasing demand, more and more food purveyors are putting extra emphasis on organics. This will ultimately result in both lower prices and larger selections. Natural foods market aisles are already teeming with organic choices—and chances are your local supermarket or big box store has introduced organic versions of many popular items. Consequently, there has never been a better time to take stock of what you are feeding yourself and your family, and to make changes for better health.

More info: www.foodnews.org; usda-fda.com/articles/organic.htm.

Send your environmental questions to: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe.

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