You Are What You Eat

For the past several years I have been choosing my produce by using my handy-dandy pocket guide from the  Environmental Working Group that lists the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen in order to reduce the amount of chemicals my family and I ingest.  If you’re not sure if this is important, watch this video:

Over the years I have made amendments (including the top GMO-foods on my Dirty Dozen list) and printed out a ranking of the 50 most common eaten produce (by Americans) from most toxic to least toxic and put in on my fridge.

Earlier this month, I picked up a copy of the May Consumer Reports magazine. In it was an article about how to reduce the amount of pesticides, herbicides, etc. that one eats. There wasn’t anything really new in it for me, but it also included a web address for their Pesticides in Produce website. I checked it out and found that although much of their information was similar to EWG’s, there were also some significant discrepancies. I was alarmed to learn that CR recommended eating only organic sweet potatoes. I’d been buying conventional for many years as it ranked pretty low on chemicals according to the EWG (38 out of 50). And, while EWG ranked cherries pretty high in chemicals (17 out of 50), according to CR they rated the risk level “low” (the two different organizations organize the information differently—EWG ranks them from highest to lowest while CR divides 48 different fruits and vegetables into 5 different categories from very high to very low. CR notes when it makes a difference from which country the produce comes. For example, apples from New Zealand rate “low” while apples from the U.S. rate “high.”)

After studying the two guides and seeing how they differed, I really wanted to know why they sometimes had different recommendations. Was it because CR was taking into account country of origin? Or because they had examined 12 years of data whereas it looked to me like EWG looked at the most recent information? Or what? I emailed both organizations and was basically given the brush-off. I was very disappointed. One solution would be to assume the worst and either buy exclusively organic or try to lessen the blow and combine the two lists and buy organic anything that was listed as high in chemicals if it was on either list. Both would necessitate spending more money on food which really annoys me. Why won’t our government assure the safety of ALL foods? Why is this burden put on us consumers? We are already overloaded with responsibilities!

According to economists who believe in the free-market, the problem will take care of itself because consumers will decide what is “bad” and won’t buy it and then those manufacturers will go out of business. Problem solved! If only we lived in that kind of utopia. It assumes that all consumers have the time to educate themselves. It assumes that consumers actually have access to the necessary information to make educated purchases. It assumes that all consumers have enough money to buy what they actually want (hello, most organic food is much more expensive). And to add insult to injury, it is primarily conventional crops that are subsidized by the government! Instead, we live in the real world where most consumers are harried and just trying to make ends meet. And if they do take the time (as I did), they find it very difficult to find the information they need.

I haven’t decided what I am going to do. How about you? How do you deal with this? One thing I’ve been sure of for a long time is that “voting with my wallet” is no longer sufficient. A lot of us have been doing that for a long time and, although it has helped some (note the increased volume of organic food for sale and the growing numbers of farmer’s markets and CSAs), it isn’t enough. Some years ago I started writing to my Congressional Representatives every time the Farm Bill was up for negotiation. It is a very unsexy bill, but it basically decides who gets agricultural subsidies and who doesn’t (which has a direct effect on the cost of our food) and how much funding programs like SNAP receive (formerly known as “food stamps”). So, I encourage you to do the same. It is completely unfair that Big Ag gets big bucks for growing corn that will be turned into high-fructose corn syrup or ethanol while small farmers who are growing organically can’t get a dime.

Where would you rather see your tax money go?

If you want to see Consumer Report’s or the Environmental Working Group’s websites, just go to the Links page on my blog and you can click on them to get there.