Published December 20, 2013
When it comes to thin-skinned fruits and vegetables like apples and celery, you know organic is the way to go. Browse through your local supermarket, however, and you’ll notice nearly every packaged food has an organic counterpart. While you’d love to buy 100 percent organic 100 percent of the time, that’s not always possible (or within your budget). So how do you decide?
“The two most important things to consider in the production of food is the use of pesticides and the presence of GMOs,” says Sonya Lunder, senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are increasingly showing up in our food supply. According to an EWG report, Americans eat more than their weight in GMO food per year—193 pounds on average.
Some early studies suggest GMOs could alter the bacterial balance in our gastrointestinal tract and contribute to obesity and other health issues. Meanwhile, pesticide residues have been linked to attention and learning problems and pediatric cancer in kids as well as nervous system damage, reproductive dysfunction, and disease in adults.
To avoid GMOs and pesticides, choose organic versions of these 10 packaged foods whenever possible.
As a whole grain, high fiber, and low calorie snack, popcorn hardly seems harmful. Look again: 88 percent of the corn grown in the U.S. is genetically engineered, reports the Environmental Working Group. “Almost all field corn is genetically modified to contain a bacteria, called bacillus thuringensis, that’s also an insecticide,” Lunder says. Each American consumes about 25 pounds of corn per year, according to the National Corn Growers Association.
In studies, chemicals in the lining of microwave popcorn bags and faux butter flavoring have been associated with lung disease as well as Alzheimer’s disease. As if you needed another reason to start popping organic corn, the FDA says microwave popcorn is one of the foods still most likely to contain trans-fats, an ingredient you won’t find in organic varieties.
What do beets and cookies have in common? A lot more than you might imagine. Sugar beets are one of the leading raw materials used to make refined sugar in the U.S. The raw sugar beet juice is processed to create sugar crystals. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 95 percent of sugar beets are genetically modified—up from 60 percent in 2009. “Although organic cookies don’t always contain less calories or fat than non-organic cookies, you’re avoiding several genetically modified ingredients, including sugar from sugar beets and corn that’s used in high-fructose corn syrup,” Lunder says.
Malathion is an ingredient in shampoos designed to kill head lice in humans and fleas in pets. Where else it shows up: in your toast. Gross! The chemical is an insecticide that kills bugs that typically feed on grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. In one study, the FDA detected malathion on bread and flour-based foods including biscuits, tortillas, muffins, crackers, pasta, and cereal. More research is needed, but studies show malathion may be associated with cancer and changes to the immune system, and can be transferred from a pregnant mother to the developing fetus.
Think you eat healthy? Follow these tips for picking out safe, nutritious foods every time you go shopping.
Flip over a bottle of salad dressing and one of the first ingredients you’ll see on the label is canola oil. Unless it’s organic, chances are the canola oil is a genetically modified variety since 90 percent of canola (also known as rapeseed) in the U.S. is genetically engineered, according to the Institute for Responsible Technology.
Pesticides are also an issue with this crop. Canola is genetically modified to be tolerant to one of two different types of herbicide, glyphosate and gluphosinate. “This means they can be sprayed with higher doses of the chemicals to kill nearby weeds without affecting the plants,” Lunder says. Scientists have also found varieties of canola growing in the wild that are tolerant to both types of weeds, meaning the GMO crops have bred and spread on their own.
Americans consume 75 percent of their tomatoes in processed forms such as ketchup, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Each year, tomatoes appear on the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticides. In studies, a single sample of cherry tomatoes tested positive for 13 different pesticides. When you buy organic, you’re not only avoiding all of those chemicals, you’re getting more nutritional bang for your buck. A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that organic ketchup contains higher levels of antioxidants than its conventional counterpart.
When the USDA recently evaluated hundreds of samples of baby food made with green beans, pears, and sweet potatoes, they found significant pesticide residue. Alarmingly, 92 percent of the pear samples tested positive for at least one pesticide, and 26 percent contained five or more. They even detected the fungicide iprodione, which the EPA has labeled a probable human carcinogen. “Kids’ bodies are more sensitive to the effects of pesticides, so it’s even more important to avoid those that could have harmful effects on their health and neurological development,” Lunder says.
To avoid the most pesitcide-ridden produce items, check out these 5 Foods You Should Always Buy Organic.
Meatless burgers often pack in a slew of different soy-based products including soybeans, soy flour, soy protein, soy sauce, and soy lecithin (a soybean oil extract). Today, 93 percent of soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified, compared with a mere 17 percent in 1997. “Soy is genetically engineered to be resistant to weed killers like Roundup, which is a health concern as well as an ecological one,” Lunder says. “We’re seeing more herbicide-resistant weeds, so farmers have to use larger quantities and more toxic chemicals to fight the weeds around the plants that we eat.”
In addition to soy, not all fish are healthy. Here are 12 Fish You Should Never, Ever Eat.
Among the ingredients most likely show up in your cereal bowl include wheat, barley, corn, corn syrup, canola oil, and sugar—all ingredients likely to be genetically modified or doused in pesticides. Not even “natural” cereal will cut it, according to a report by the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute. “Natural” means the food contains no artificial ingredients, such as preservatives. However, the farms and manufacturing plants that produce those ingredients aren’t prohibited from using pesticides and genetically engineered crops.
While you’re at it, pour some organic milk over your organic cereal. Non-organic dairy cows are often treated with the genetically engineered hormones called recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) or recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST). They’re injected into the cows to increase milk production. According to the American Cancer Society, milk from cows treated with rBGH has higher levels of IGF-1, a hormone that stimulates cell growth. Some studies suggest it could contribute to prostate, breast, colorectal, and other cancers in humans.
Apples regularly appear on the Dirty Dozen list, and this year they earned the top spot. Unless you buy organic applesauce, it’s likely to be swimming in several different pesticides. According to a report by the FDA, nearly every one of the 19 pesticide residues they tested for appeared in jarred applesauce. “If this is a food your family, especially your kids, frequently eat, it’s worth going out of your way to buy organic in order to avoid these chemicals,” Lunder says. Keep in mind that many fruit-based squeeze pouches start with an applesauce base, so look for organic varieties of those, too.
To learn which produce you should always buy organic, download our Organic Fruits and Veggies Shopping Guide.