Smarter Living: Shopping Wise


Photo: v-juhansonin/Flickr

Pesticides are a type of poison used on farms to kill pests -- insects and the like. If you aren't careful residues of these poisons can end up in your food and have potentially harmul effects on your health. Thankfully there are several ways to reduce your family's exposure to pesticide residues by choosing certain organic produce and carefully preparing your fresh meals.

The Health Concerns with Pesticides

Scientists have shown that children age 5 and under ingest daily an average of eight pesticides in the form of trace residues in and on the fruits and vegetables we are eager for them to eat. Designed as weapons against agricultural pests, conventional pesticides have their unintended victims, including wildlife and people. Studies link pesticide exposure to childhood cancers, neurological damage, birth defects and prostate cancer. Young children, whose internal organs and systems are developing rapidly, are particularly vulnerable to pesticides' harmful effects, including quite possibly early onset of Parkinson's.

Government tests show that conventionally grown fruits and vegetables can retain up to 13 pesticides even after washing and cooking. Kale, for instance, is a super food to eat, but along with those leafy greens your family can gulp down a dose of pesticides if you don't buy organic. Pesticide residues don't wash off kale leaves, making it one of the dozen or so vegetables and fruits that carry the highest levels of pesticides (see "Buy the Organic Variety," below).

But there is some good news: According to a 15-day study conducted by researchers at Emory University in Atlanta, children can eliminate their bodies' loads of agricultural pesticides by eating organically grown products. Researchers looked at a class of pesticides called organophosphates, which can cause problems in childhood neurological development.

Why buy organic?

There are many benefits to organic production. Most importantly, organic growers are prohibited from using synthetic pesticides. Choosing fresh, organic ingredients not only lowers the amount of toxic pesticides in your body but can also halve your levels of bisphenol A phthalates, both of which can alter your hormone levels.

Organic production also helps combat global warming by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere rather than releasing it, as conventional farms do. Organic agriculture can bind 1,000 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere per acre. This is largely because organic production is based on building up healthy soil, which reduces water runoff and soil erosion as well as provides better habitats for birds and fish in nearby waterways. Many different types of song birds are among the animals that thrive on insects found in organic fields. Supporting organic farmers also reduces the amount of pesticides, such as atrazine, that enter our waterways and can harm aquatic life and end up in our drinking water.

Organic on a budget

Organic foods can cost more than nonorganic, sometimes 40 to 50 percent more. Here are some ways to stay within your budget while significantly reducing your pesticide load:

  • Choose organic where it counts, such as when purchasing the items listed in the sidebar, whose conventionally grown versions contain the most pesticides.
  • Know when you can skip organic. While there are many reasons to buy organic foods, not everyone can find fresh organic produce at their supermarket, or afford the premium price tags. Certain fruits and vegetables are very low in pesticide residues so buying organic isn't as important. Some examples include: asparagus, avocados, onions, sweet corn, pineapple, mango and grapefruit.
  • Choose low-fat organic or grass-fed milk and meat. Toxins tend to accumulate in animal fat.
  • Wash all produce. Washing helps remove pesticides and bacteria introduced during handling and shipping.
  • Steam leafy greens. Cooking vastly reduces pesticides and E. coli and retains most nutrients.
  • Peel carrots, cucumbers, etc. This won't get at the systemic pesticides that are inside, but it will remove any that are on or in the skin.
  • Buy local. Regional farms serving local markets can skip the harsh chemicals that are used on crops intended for distant markets. Local Harvest makes it easy to find local food outlets in your area.
  • Buy frozen. Flash-freezing locks in nutrients. Use Local Harvest to find stores that sell frozen organic produce grown in your region.
  • Make more meals from scratch using fresh, whole, local ingredients. You'll save money and avoid not only pesticides but also unhealthy additives like sugar, salt and fat.

last revised 8/23/2011

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |
Find NRDC on