Wednesday, July 20, 2005

The Dirty Dozen

I don't want to be a Whole Foods snob any more than you do. So I have resisted, stubbornly and deliberately, over the last few years to dispense with such notions as "free range eggs taste better" and "you should avoid hormone-injected beef." I've really tried. But the thing is, food is important to me. I love a nice, juicy piece of London broil off the grill in our backyard or a crispy fried egg sandwich on a toasted English muffin with a little Swiss cheese and maybe a slice of ripe tomato. And so I have succumbed. Perhaps it was inevitable. Organic food (no surprise, I guess) tastes better.

Oh, and I read Fast Food Nation. That was a big mistake for anyone wishing to continue gobbling down good old USDA-approved meat. Not when you encounter tasty little tidbits like "current FDA regulations allow dead pigs and dead horses to be rendered into cattle feed, along with dead poultry" and "the hourly spillage rate at the gut table has run as high as 20 percent, with stomach contents splattering one out of five carcasses" (FFN, 202-203). Mmmmm.

So, yes, I buy my meat at Whole Foods, dammit. And it costs like three times as much. And I hardly ever go out to eat in order to justify spending so much money on groceries every month. But you know, no crazy cow steroids or dead horses in my dinner. So that's a plus. And my steaks taste great.

But I didn't bring you here to talk about meat. Everyone knows that eating a lot of meat is bad for you anyway. In fact, when you're feeling a little guilty about how many E.coli-laced hamburgers you've been scarfing down, you might reach for something to make you feel better. How about.... a vegetable or fruit? Those are always good for you, right? Sort of.

What? Fruits and vegetables aren't always good for me? Makes you just want to throw down that rutabaga in disgust and pick up some Fritos. Not so fast--most fruits and vegetables, organic or not, are great for you. You just need to avoid (dramatic music) The Dirty Dozen. More on that in a second.

The worst thing about the whole organic debate has to be the vast difference in price between conventionally and organic-grown produce. Sometimes I feel that the organic strawberries in my carton should come wrapped in 24k gold foil to justify their cost (although the disparity does lessen quite a bit when strawberries are actually in season, as they are now). In their defense, organic farming methods, which have been around since the dawn of time, are significantly more time-consuming and intricate than conventional ones, as well as much better for the earth. Organic farmers have to do Little-House-on-the-Prairie things like rotate crops, plant clover for ground cover, and use compost, not chemicals, as fertilizer. So, when is it worth it to give your fruits and vegetables this extra love?

Earlier this year, the EWG, a nonprofit advocacy group, released the results of a study about the levels of pesticides in United States produce. The study found that you can lower your pesticide exposure by 90% by avoiding twelve simple fruits and vegetables--items that accrete tremendous amounts of pesticide throughout their entire growing process. Eating these foods conventionally-grown exposes you to an average of 20 different pesticides a day. They are:

1. apples
2. bell peppers
3. celery
4. cherries
5. grapes (imported)
6. nectarines
7. peaches
8. pears
9. potatoes
10. red raspberries
11. spinach
12. strawberries

I know--crap! A lot of good things on there. But I've switched over to organic for most of the things on this list (except celery--who eats that away from a Bloody Mary, anyway?), and I have to admit I've enjoyed the switch. No more mealy apples or that faintly bitter aftertaste on peaches and pears. Strawberries are divinely sweet and can be eaten straight up, no sugar necessary. I've also found that organic spinach is just about the same price as regular spinach at my supermarket.

The list of twelve helps a bit with the cost issue. It's prohibitively expensive for most American families to buy organic all of the time. In a perfect world, all huge agri-business conglomerations, er, I mean, farmers, would grow organic produce and it wouldn't cost you an arm and a leg to buy it. (After all, why should only the rich people be allowed to live pesticide-free? Yeah, I don't see low-income families shopping at Whole Foods either.) In this perfect world, the government and its buddies, the chemical companies, also wouldn't pretend that pesticides are "safe." (For more on specific pesticides and their effects on humans, go make an "interactive salad" at Hokey, yes. Interesting, also yes.)

Until this perfect world comes to pass (don't hold your breath-- former chemical company CEOs currently staff many of this administration's "environmental" agency positions), at least you can cut your losses by staying away from the list. In the simple words of Marion Nestle, Ph.D, and professor of public health at New York University: "Organic foods have fewer pesticides, and the people who eat them have fewer pesticides in their bodies." Sounds good to me.


At 8:16 PM, Blogger charles.bukowski.costanza said...

i love it when you preach to me.

seriously i do i do: i can picture you giving this exact lesson as a presentation to your students, complete with visual aids [points vindictively to mealy, big-Ag apple on left, making downturned frowny mr. yuck face; points to happy shiny (but not overly so!) organic apple on right, smiles, and waits for class applause. entices class attention by promising that if they all take good notes, next week will tell them the real history of johnny appleseed and how he planted apples everywhere so farmer's could make their own hard cider.]

At 11:00 AM, Blogger scs said...

:) You are a very good student, Mark.

At 10:27 PM, Blogger kristinachen said...

you have seriously come a long way.
i can hardly believe that it was about 7 years ago that you were eating mcdonalds for breakfast on your way to the CG. like, mark, i love it when you preach. good stuff in here. its just so terrible.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger scs said...

Not just McDonald's, but TWO Sausage Egg McMuffins with a large diet Coke, and sometimes hash browns if feeling especially lux. Thank you for noticing my progress over the years, kc. I swear we were all toxic back then (well, at least me). Do you remember my Hungry Man dinners from the track house?

At 10:10 PM, Blogger Ekamati said...

One's food past is a little horrifying. I recently worked through a food timeline and charted what I ate in my teens, college, dc, bosnia, and now. The progression has been amazing. I did not have an organic, let alone, vegetarian, not to speak of remotely healthy diet until I was given the book, "the zone" in 1996 for my birthday. It changed my life, that was the first, I mean first time, I thought about what I ate, the amount, its category (protein, carb, fat), the time of day. It is also the first time I shopped for groceries and cooked. What a trajectory though, I have stayed on the zone wagon for 9 years, continue to live by the principles and slowly become a vegetarian (2001) and now fully, and I mean fully organic. I started seeing a naturopath in March who is changing my life. There is no going back. Sullivan this write is amazing. I read Fast Food Nation with my book club in Bosnia a year or so ago. Half the group become vegetarians. It is impossible not to after reading that book, or at least a free range person.


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