Eating Healthily: Where to Begin

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw
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Photo by Pixabay/Nadine Primeau

Those of us fortunate enough to be growing much of our own food may find it difficult to tell others how to begin. Those of you who are just beginning to make changes towards healthier eating may find it difficult to know where to begin. We all know that it’s easy to feel frustrated and over-whelmed when there’s so much information out there. This is especially true because this information isn’t consistent or easy to find.

I think I’ve found a relatively simple tool that can serve as a starting point for beginners or teachers. This tool is a list called “The Dirty Dozen.” It’s put out annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). If people avoid eating conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables on this list, they will reduce their pesticide intake by nearly 80%. That’s an encouraging beginning!

Pesticides and other chemicals are used pervasively in growing commercial crops. We want to provide nutritious fruits and vegetables for ourselves and our families, but attempting to find and pay for organic produce may seem an insurmountable barrier. That’s why I like the idea of there being just twelve foods that we either avoid, or grow ourselves, or buy organically.

Avoiding the chemicals in these twelve foods is critical. It’s important for everyone, but children bear the highest concentration of chemicals in their small bodies. This is also true for the fetus of pregnant mothers. Pesticides contribute to ADHD—a disease that wasn’t even defined 30 years ago. Alzheimer’s disease, autism and diabetes are now linked to nitrite exposure, and their incidence is rapidly increasing. Nitrites are a key ingredient in pesticides and fertilizers in today’s conventional farming. It’s not by chance that the incidence of cancer is now one in two for men and one in three for women.

We can move beyond feeling frightened, angry or frustrated by this situation. Every time we buy or grow organically these twelve foods, we not only keep our bodies healthier, but we keep our water, air and soil healthier too.

The Dirty Dozen

  1. Celery: I find this difficult to imagine, but up to 67 different chemicals have been found on commercially-grown celery. Part of my astonishment is that I’ve been growing celery for the last three years, and I think it does well without any chemicals. Well, there might be a little grasshopper bite or two on the outside stalks, but that makes it look authentically “organic!” If you don’t want to grow celery and can’t find organic, substitute other crunchy vegetables with fewer chemicals like broccoli, radishes or onions.
  2. Peaches: This fruit has up to 62 different chemicals applied to them conventionally. That knowledge certainly takes the pleasure out of eating them! I treasure this fruit and watch over them as they mature in our orchard. Last year I even put a footie (from shoe stores) on each fruit to keep insects off. If you don’t have room for a fruit tree and can’t find organic peaches, safer fruits would be watermelon, tangerines, oranges and grapefruit.
  3. Strawberries: I wince when I see a child bite into a strawberry because up to 59 residual (after washing) chemicals have been found on them. If you have even a small piece of land, grow your own—or buy only from farmers who use no chemicals. Don’t buy out-of-season strawberries, because most imported ones are highly contaminated. When you have an organic source, consider freezing some for winter consumption.
  4. Apples: Apples are typically grown with many chemicals to kill fungi and insects. Those tested had 42 different pesticides. Even apples grown by “integrated pest management” (IPM) contain more than 20 chemicals. I was told by a local grower that his apples had been “washed twice and are ready to eat.” Don’t believe it. Even if you remove the skin, most chemicals remain. Additionally, many nutrients are found in the skin of fruits and vegetables, so you want to find those grown organically and eat them with their skins. We’re putting ashes around our apple trees this year to help keep worms away, but it’s also helpful to raise disease-resistant varieties. If you can’t grow or find organic apples, watermelon or tangerines would be safer choices.
  5. Blueberries: These are one of the “dirtiest” berries because they are treated with as many as 52 chemicals. They’re not worth eating if they’re not organic.
  6. Nectarines: Because I attempt to eat foods that are grown locally, I don’t miss nectarines. Knowing that there are 33 different pesticides found on them makes me miss them even less. Watermelon is again a safer alternative, but if you have papayas or mangos around, they’re safer also.
  7. Bell peppers: I believe most of us can either grow these organically or talk a local farmer into growing these without chemicals. Perhaps we’ll have to tolerate a little flaw or two, but that’s better than the 49 different pesticides found on peppers grown commercially. Green peas, broccoli and cabbage are safer alternatives because they’re grown with fewer chemicals.
  8. Spinach: This “healthy” vegetable can be contaminated with as many as 48 different chemicals! Again, this surprises me because it grows in cool weather when there aren’t many insects to bother it.
  9. Kale: This green is so cold hardy that I can’t imagine why high amounts of pesticides residues are found on it. You’ll find it easy to grow, but if you have to buy commercially-grown vegetables, cabbage, asparagus and broccoli are safer.
  10. Cherries: Up to 42 different pesticides were found on cherries. If you can’t find a cherry tree in your neighborhood, and there are no organic cherries (in season) in the store, then substitute raspberries and cranberries to reduce your chemical load.
  11. Potatoes: Like many other crops, potatoes are getting resistant to the multiple chemicals used on them, and so more combinations are being used. As many as 37 different pesticides were found on potatoes. Eating potato skins (where most the nutrients are found) from conventionally-grown potatoes is eating a concentrated chemical cocktail. Eggplant, cabbage and mushrooms are healthier substitutes. Sweet potatoes are the best—low in chemicals and high in vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants.
  12. Grapes: The thin-skin of grapes makes washing totally ineffective in removing the 34 different pesticides used in their growth. Imported grapes are said to be worse, but vineyards in the states have used progressively more pesticides since the 1980’s. Grapes, grape-juice and wine are best avoided unless you can find organic. If you can’t, safer alternatives include kiwi and raspberries.

    Here is a grocery store list of what not to buy unless it was grown organically!