You’ve listened to the hype about organic foods. But if you’re like 45 percent of Americans polled in a recent Gallup survey, you’re still unsure whether they’re worth the extra money or not. After all, your parents ate non-organic foods for most of their lives — probably still do — and they turned out all right. Plus, there are federal and state agencies whose primary purpose is to inspect food and determine if it’s safe for human consumption. So if they give it their stamp of approval, it must be safe, right? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: While many government agencies and academic institutions have tested individual foods for safety, few have looked closely at the bigger picture, taking into account the cumulative and synergistic effects of all of the pesticides and other toxic chemicals we ingest each day.
“And that’s what we’re really concerned about — daily exposure to complex mixtures of pesticides,” says Sonya Lunder, M.P.H., a senior researcher at the non-profit Environmental Working Group who analyzes pesticides on foods. “Some are linked to cancers and others are linked to birth defects in children.”
So what’s a person to do? Start by reducing your consumption of the following 10 foods, which typically have higher concentrations of toxins than most other foods in the supermarket. It’s almost impossible to eliminate all contaminants from your life, but if you reduce your consumption of the foods below — and heed our advice regarding what to eat instead — you’ll reduce your exposure significantly.
CONVENTIONAL HOT CHILI PEPPERS
Chili peppers are often laced with toxic pesticides that are banned on other foods, according to the Environmental Working Group. One such chemical, chlorpyrifos, can cause nausea, dizziness, and even death in high enough doses. The Environmental Protection Agency told us they are “currently evaluating the science” on whether to ban its use, and expect to make a decision by the end of 2016, but it’s still legal (and well worth avoiding) at the time of this writing.
Your move: Buy organic whole peppers, especially if you plan on eating them raw. “Some pesticides are broken down when heated, but you won’t get rid of everything,” says Lunder, who also advises eating organic hot sauces and salsas.
TILEFISH, SWORDFISH, TUNA, AND SHARK
These five fish had the highest concentrations of mercury (a potent neurotoxin) out of all of the seafood studied in a recent report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Mercury is an airborne industrial pollutant that leaches into water, where it is absorbed by aquatic life. It also becomes concentrated as you move up the food chain. “A large tuna will typically have a concentration of mercury approximately a million times greater than the waters it inhabits,” says Paul Drevnick, Ph.D., a research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies mercury contamination.
Your move: Limit canned white or albacore tuna to no more than three times a month. Canned skipjack tuna (which is used on most canned “light” tuna and typically has three times less mercury than albacore) can be eaten as frequently as once or more a week, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Your best canned fish option is wild-caught pink or sockeye salmon, which is typically low in contaminants and high in omega-3s (more on salmon in a bit). The EDF also advises that you eat tilefish and swordfish no more than once a month, and shark even less often (assuming you’re not also eating any of the above fish too, since the effects add up). Smaller fish and shellfish all tend to be low in mercury because they’re lower down the food chain, and are safer to eat. That includes scallops, oysters, shrimp, clams, and tilapia, which contained the lowest levels of mercury, according to the FDA.
Although FDA studies have found farm-raised salmon to be low in mercury, it’s high in another pollutant called polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB). A 2004 study in the journal Science found that the PCB levels in farm-raised salmon are as much as eight times higher than in wild-caught salmon. That’s a problem because PCBs can wreak havoc your immune and endocrine systems. They have also been linked to cancer and heart attacks, and have been banned in manufacturing since 1979. There’s still a fair amount of residual PCBs left over in the environment, however, and those compounds continue to absorb into the fatty tissue of fish like salmon. Indeed, the same delicious, fatty meat that makes salmon a potent source of omega-3s can also make them a potent source of PCBs.
Your move: Physicians for Social Responsibility, a non-profit organization of medical professionals, recommends eating fresh or frozen wild Pacific salmon no more than twice a month, and farmed Atlantic salmon just once every two months. Canned salmon is considered safer: You can eat that twice a week. If you’re worried about the impact of eating less seafood on your ability to get omega-3s, consider taking a fish oil supplement, which have consistently been shown to contain fewer PCBs than a serving of fish. “Fish oil supplements are molecularly distilled to remove impurities, and they’re typically made from smaller fish like sardines and anchovies that don’t have a lot of PCBs to begin with,” says Tom Cooperman, M.D., president of ConsumerLabs.org, an organization that conducts regular tests of commercial fish oil products.
CONVENTIONALLY GROWN SPINACH AND KALE
These leafy greens are nutritional powerhouses, but a report by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation — the biggest U.S. grower of both vegetables — found illegal pesticides on 10 percent of spinach and 4 percent of kale tested. But here’s the scariest part: Only 104 of California’s 390 spinach and kale farms were included in the study. So while contaminated vegetables are destroyed or thoroughly cleaned when they’re found, there very well might me much more contaminated spinach and kale making their way to store shelves.
Your move: Buying organic reduces the chances you’ll inadvertently be exposed to pesticides in your salad or green smoothie, but not entirely: Even a few organic brands tested positive for illegal pesticides, including Capay Organic and Del Monte. It’s always smart to give your greens a thorough wash before eating them.
CONVENTIONALLY GROWN STRAWBERRIES AND GRAPES
Farmers douse conventional strawberries and grapes with a heavy cocktail of pesticides because their skins are so thin. “Strawberries grow right on the ground and they have no protective outer layer, so they’re vulnerable to anything that lives down there,” says Lunder. According to the USDA Pesticide Data Program, that potent mix includes 45 pesticides on strawberries (including a known carcinogen called captan found on 43 percent of samples), and 56 different pesticides on grapes.
Your move: Buy organic strawberries and grapes, and don’t forget about organic wines. Not only are they healthier (studies show that fungicides often end up in finished bottles), but they’re also a more socially responsible, as pesticides have recently been blamed for health problems in wine country workers in France.
CONVENTIONALLY GROWN APPLES
Apples are popular year-round, but they’re primarily harvested between August and September. As a result, off-season apples likely spend a lot of time — possibly months — in cold storage before you see them in the produce aisle. “They’re treated chemically to prevent mold and fungus during the long time they’re in storage,” says Lunder. And it should come as no surprise that many of those chemicals can have less than desirable effects on the human body.
Your move: A study in the journal Food Chemistry found that rinsing conventionally grown apples reduced pesticide residue by 50 percent, and peeling them reduced it by a whopping 98 percent. Unfortunately, peeling also removes about half of the fiber content (from 5.4 g down to 2.8 g in a 3½-inch apple), so your best bet is still (you guessed it) to buy organic. If that doesn’t work with your grocery budget, rinse conventionally grown apples under cold water for at least 60 seconds while gently rubbing the skin with your fingertips, advises the National Pesticide Information Center. You won’t get rid of all of the pesticides, but it’s better than giving them a quick polish on your shirt.
It doesn’t matter whether you eat organic or conventional rice — either way, there’s a good chance it contains arsenic, a poisonous element that raises the risk of certain cancers, and can cause kidney and liver damage. In 2013, the FDA released a report revealing that you don’t even need to eat straight rice to consume worrying levels of arsenic — a single serving of a product containing rice (e.g., beer or gluten-free brownie mix) can contain up to 7.2 micrograms of the stuff. To put that in perspective, safe drinking water can only have 1/16 that amount (about 10 parts per billion of arsenic). Why doesn’t it matter if you buy organic (at least as far as arsenic is concerned)? Because rice absorbs it from groundwater, and hangs on to 10 times as much of it as other grains.
Your move: Still buy organic. You’ll skip the pesticides, and if you cook it in three times more water than the directions suggest — discarding the extra like you do with pasta once it’s fully cooked — you’ll reduce your arsenic exposure by as much as 60 percent, according to a recent FDA study.
CONVENTIONALLY GROWN PEACHES AND NECTARINES
These stone fruits are nearly identical (a single gene determines the difference), so they’re both vulnerable to the same pests and diseases, and are grown with similar pesticide regimens. A peach’s distinguishing fuzzy surface, however, means more pesticides cling to the skin before you bite down. Indeed, U.S. Department of Agriculture tests found that the fuzzy fruit contained as much as 62 different pesticides, while nectarines had 33. Even more alarming: A full 98 percent of conventionally grown peaches and 97 percent of nectarines had at least one pesticide on them, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. By comparison, 88 percent of conventionally grown mangoes (another popular stone fruit) were found to be pesticide free by the time they hit store shelves.
Your move: Buy mangos. You get extra points for buying organic, but given the low incidence of pesticides in conventional samples, and the fact that they’re generally eaten pealed, mangoes are one fruit that’s relatively safe to eat regardless of how they’re grown.
No less than 60 percent of samples in a 2013 study by Consumer Reports contained antibiotic-resistant strains of potentially harmful bacteria like E. coli in 60 percent of samples. And in a 2011 FDA report, a full 81 percent of ground turkey samples tested positive for Enterococci (a sign of fecal contamination). Since conventionally raised turkeys (along with chickens, pigs, and cows, for that matter) can be given antibiotics without a prescription, some of the gut bacteria in these animals develop drug resistance before they’re slaughtered. That resistance, if you’re unlucky enough to catch a bug from tainted meat, can turn what would normally be an unpleasant but treatable bacterial infection into something potentially lethal. Researchers estimate that around 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic resistant infections, but it’s not clear how many of those bacteria originate in livestock.
Your move: Any harmful bacteria will be killed if you cook the turkey to the recommended internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit, but you might not be completely out of the woods. “Antibiotic resistant genes may still be present, and potentially acquired by other bacteria, including those in our gut,” says Monica Ponder, PhD, a professor of food science at Virginia Tech. Buying organic meat that was raised without antibiotics will cut down on drug-resistant bacteria, but some studies have found that you can still get them from vegetables fertilized with manure from animals that were treated with antibiotics. Ponder is currently researching better farming practices to prevent this from happening, but as of right now, buying organic is still your best option.
MOST FOODS THAT COME IN A CAN
A few years ago, consumers started to worry about a compound called bisphenol-A (BPA), which is found in many plastic water bottles, food storage containers, and linings of steel and aluminum cans. The chemical seeps into food (particularly when the cans are heated during the sealing process), and once you consume it, BPA can mimic estrogen and mess with testosterone and other hormones. It was also linked to an increased risk of heart disease in a 2014 Korean study, which found that drinking two cans of BPA-tainted soy milk resulted in an acute increase in blood pressure.
Your move: Many bottle manufacturers have stopped using plastics with BPA, but 90 percent of the canned food supply is still lined with BPA-based epoxies, says Lunder. Click here for a list of BPA-free brands, or check out the product lines at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, both of which have largely eliminated BPA packaging from their shelves.