Is Your Apple Dangerous? How to Eat Fewer Pesticides (and Save Money)

by Camilla Cheung on 18 July 2013 2 comments

One of the biggest concerns in food safety today is our intake of chemicals that are sprayed on fresh produce. Fungicides, insecticides, and other chemicals are the price we pay for, uniform, beautiful, and bountiful fruits and vegetables. (See also: Eating at the Intersection of Cheap and Healthy)

Buying organic is one way to minimize your pesticide exposure, but for the frugal among us, organic produce can often seem too costly. The great news is that you don't have to buy exclusively organic produce to drastically minimize your pesticide exposure. By selecting a combination of organic and conventionally grown items, you can reduce the chemical content in your food without breaking the bank.

1. Buy Organic Where It Counts

The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list of produce that should be on everyone's refrigerator door. The EWG warns about the "Dirty Dozen Plus," a list of over a dozen fruits and vegetables that carry the highest pesticide load or which are contaminated with particularly harmful insecticides.

Among the Dirty Dozen are apples, peaches, grapes, strawberries, and celery. You can minimize your pesticide exposure by buying organic or pesticide-free versions of those fruits and vegetables, and choosing more alternative produce from the EWG's "Clean Fifteen,'" a list that includes squash, mangoes, avocados, and other produce that carry few pesticides. Knowing specifically what produce has the greatest pesticide load means that you don't have to buy EVERYTHING organic, just certain items.

Buying fruit in season also eases the strain on your wallet. For example, organic blueberries are worth their weight in gold most of the year, but become much more affordable when they are in season in the summer.

2. Shop at Farmers' Markets

Much of the local produce at the farmers' markets is pesticide-free, although they do not officially have an "organic" label. That is because it can be more difficult for small farms to comply with all the requirements for getting an organic label, even if their fruits and vegetables are produced without chemicals and with respect for the environment.

Next time you're at the farmers' market, ask whether the produce is pesticide-free. Most likely, you'll be able to buy pesticide-free fruits and vegetables at a lower cost than organic produce at a supermarket (and the produce will be fresher, too).

3. Buy Frozen

When I can't afford to buy fresh organic broccoli, I go for the frozen organic broccoli in a bag. It tastes fine in a casserole, and freezing preserves most of the nutrients. Same goes for spinach (which is on the Dirty Dozen list). Sometimes, frozen vegetables are already cut up; perfect for throwing into a stir-fry or adding to a pasta sauce, so they're convenient, too!

4. Shop at Ethnic Markets

My local Korean grocery store has a surprising amount of organic produce for extremely reasonable prices. A huge assortment of organic mushrooms can be had for 99 cents a package! To take advantage of this organic windfall, I've learned to use different kinds of mushrooms in all sorts of dishes, from omelets and risotto to stir-fries and soups.

You can challenge yourself to cook new dishes by using whatever organic ingredients are available at your local ethnic market.

5. Rinse, Scrub, and Peel

When you can't afford to buy pesticide-free produce, minimize the pesticides in your food by rinsing and scrubbing your produce under running water. Forget the fancy vegetable washes — studies show that plain old water does just as well. Remember, the scrubbing action is the key to removing pesticides, so rub them vigorously with your hands or scrub them with a brush exclusively devoted to that purpose. If you want to remove potentially harmful bacteria, rinse your fruits and veggies in a vinegar solution.

Peeling fruits and vegetables can reduce the pesticides on the surface, but thin-skinned fruits and veggies like tomatoes, apples, and potatoes actually absorb pesticides, so peeling doesn't get rid of chemicals entirely. Scary thought, isn't it?

6. Buy Lean Cuts of Meat

Fruits and vegetables aren't the only culprits when it comes to pesticide exposure. Conventionally raised meats also contain pesticide residues from the feed given to the animals (not to mention antibiotic-resistant bacteria) — in fact, the EPA states that meats are contaminated with higher levels of pesticides than plant foods.

Many harmful pesticides are fat-soluble and accumulate in an animal's fatty tissues, as well as in the fat content of dairy products. To reduce your exposure, choose lean cuts of meat and trim off excess fat. Choose low-fat milk and yogurt when buying conventional dairy. Choose organic whole milk for young children and organic butter if you can.

7. Buy Organic Meat in Bulk, and Choose Less Popular Cuts

To lower your pesticide exposure, eat less, but better-quality meat (it's better for the planet, too).

Some families buy a share of a grass-fed animal (a quarter of a steer, for example) at more reasonable prices than buying organic meat retail. You can also buy organic meat at bulk retailers like Costco. Although stores like Costco may not have much selection, you can stock up on organic ground beef and other cuts that you can rotate through.

Buy less popular cuts to save even more. For example, a pound of organic, free-range chicken thighs is half the price of organic chicken breasts (and in my opinion, tastes better too). Note that the label "natural" on meats only means that the meat has been minimally processed after butchering — the animal could have been fed antibiotics and pesticide-contaminated feed.

Exclusively eating organic food would be ideal, but most of us can't afford it. By judiciously selecting which foods you buy organic, and by reducing your exposure to pesticides when you buy conventionally-grown produce, you'll be doing your body a favor and keeping some money in your wallet, too.

How are you keeping pesticides out of your pantry and fridge?

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Guest's picture

I've heard that just using regular dish soap also works very well.

Also, I've heard that strawberries are one of the most pesticide laden food. Ensure you scrub them extra!

Guest's picture

I actually saw today a list of the 10 foods that are more likely to give you cancer and The Dirty Dozen was on that list! The second time I am reading about this in one day! I particularly like the advice to eat less meat but a better quality. It is better for us and also sustainable.