A Mini-Rant On The Dirty Dozen

It's great to purchase organics, both for health and the environment, but let's not freak out about conventional produce either! #nutrition #wellness #health #dietitian

Today's post is a bit of a mini-rant. 

Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group the Dirty Dozen, it’s yearly list of the fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides.

I’m glad they do this report. As consumers, I think we deserve to have any information as we like, so we can make decisions in line with our needs and values. For those who are concerned about pesticide exposure, or want to choose foods that contribute less chemicals to the environment, that’s information they deserve access too.

But what drives me nuts is the way it’s shared in a way that drives food fear and anxiety. Who would want to eat something labeled as dirty? What if you don’t have access to many organics where you live – do you just avoid potatoes and spinach and strawberries and apples? What if you don’t have the finances to afford organic?

One study found that many people were so confused about conventional versus organic that they just gave up and ate less produce. I remember hearing this a lot when I worked with low income populations in a hospital setting. When we explored ways to add more produce to their diet, they’d often respond that they loved fruits and vegetables, but they heard somewhere that their favorite kinds were loaded with pesticides, so they avoided them.

Most of my clients now are pretty well off and have access to organics, but it still creates this anxiety when they eat something that isn’t organic, or they feel like the dirty dozen is yet another set of food rules lingering in the back of their mind. I had one client who drove to three different grocery stores to be able to get the organic versions of the produce she liked on the Dirty Dozen list. 

Don't get me wrong - I’m a big supporter of organics. I love to shop at our local farmers market and pick up what's in season. If the organic version of a food isn’t astronomically more expensive, that’s what I get. I try to do what I can to support a healthier environment, and purchasing more organics is a little way I can do that. But also, I also have a ton of socioeconomic privilege to be able to make that decision.

I think there’s enough research to show that eating more organics confers a small health benefit. And definitely organic farming is much better for the environment. But that doesn’t make conventional produce “dirty.”

Keep in mind most research showing the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are done on conventional produce. Just eating produce, no matter what kind, is healthy. Also, while there are studies that show a slight benefit to eating organics, there are plenty that show no difference at all. What that tells me is that if eating organics makes a difference in overall health and longevity, it’s a small difference. We’re not talking the difference between not smoking and smoking two packs a day – it's small percentage points, or even fractions of percentage points.

All that's to say, this is not something you need to stress out about. If you’ve got the $$$ for it, I hope you’ll buy organic (and local!) when you can. It's good for the environment, and good for your community. Eating plenty of produce, along with sources of carbohydrate, protein, fat, and foods that just taste good, is more important than stressing about avoiding a small amount of pesticide. 

Mini-rant over. 

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