U.S. government data, ranked pesticide levels in 43 conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

By: Betsy McKay, Associated Press via Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2006

Grocery-store shelves are increasingly crowded with pricey organic versions of everything from milk and eggs to hot dogs and beer. But some of the options pitched as healthier may not always be worth their higher price tags.

Born as an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional farming methods, the organic-food industry has mushroomed into a juggernaut with nearly $14 billion in sales in 2005 and annual growth of roughly 20 percent. Food empires like Dean Foods Co. and Danone SA now churn out organic products, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has become a major seller of organic food.

One big reason food makers and retailers are scrambling into the business: Shoppers often are willing to pay a fat premium for anything with the word "organic" on the box. Organic Valley brand low-fat milk, marketed by the Organic Family of Farms/CROPP cooperative in La Farge, Wis., costs $3.69 per half gallon at a Publix Super Markets Inc. store in Atlanta, for instance, compared with $1.99 for a store-brand carton of nonorganic milk.

The term "organic" refers to farming methods that eschew pesticides and other chemicals in an effort to protect the environment. But while some consumers do buy it to support the environmental goals, increasingly people seek out organic food for the perceived health benefits and to avoid chemical residues. More than 70 percent of Americans buy organic at least occasionally, according to marketing firm Hartman Group Inc.

Since 2002, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has imposed strict standards on which foods can say "organic" on their labels. Fruits, vegetables and grains must be grown on land free of prohibited synthetic fertilizers or sewage sludge, and genetic engineering and irradiation are not allowed. Meat, poultry and milk must come from animals that are free of the growth hormones and antibiotics that are given to conventionally raised animals to boost production, and must be fed organic feed. They also must have access to the outdoors although that doesn't mean they always get to roam free.

But organic food isn't necessarily more healthful than conventionally produced food, say many scientists. Some conventional foods are already low in chemicals and high in nutrients. For instance, most of any chemical residue on a nonorganic banana or orange gets thrown away with the peel, anyway, nutrition and environmental experts say. So careful consumers who want food that packs a health benefit in addition to supporting a cleaner environment may want to consider what organic foods are really worth the higher prices.

Here's a look at some of the research behind the potential benefits of organic foods:


Fruits and Vegetables


A shopper's guide issued last fall, based on U.S. government data, ranked pesticide levels in 43 conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The guide, from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that raises concerns about pesticides, found that many were already low in residues, including broccoli, asparagus, avocados and onions.

Among fruits and vegetables that were found to be higher in residues than other produce are peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, strawberries and imported grapes. The effects of multiple pesticides on the body at once aren't known, says Richard Wiles, EWG's executive director.

It's important to note that even those fruits and vegetables that ranked higher in residues have pesticides still within levels permitted by the government.

The levels of pesticides in the produce on the EWG's list are "orders of magnitude" below those levels deemed safe by the EPA and the USDA "after years and years of study," says Shannon Schaffer, a spokesman for the U.S. Apple Association, a trade association for apple growers, shippers and packers in Vienna, Va.

Conventional produce is "perfectly safe," says Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association in Maitland, Fla., which represents 250 growers of organic and conventional produce, and its purchase is "a personal decision by individual consumers."

In terms of nutrition, some studies, some of which are funded by the organic-food industry, have found higher levels of antioxidants and other nutrients in organically grown corn, strawberries, peaches, tomatoes and other produce. But even if organic produce does have more antioxidants, it's not clear that they offer nutrition benefits to humans, says Alyson Mitchell, associate professor and food chemist at the University of California, Davis, who has conducted some of the studies.

Recent E. coli outbreaks have made some consumers wonder if eating organic baby spinach or other produce might reduce their risk. Food-safety experts say that's not the case. "There are issues about growing produce whether it's organic or conventional," says Robert Tauxe, a food-borne-diseases official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Bottom line: It may not make much difference to spend money on organic versions of foods already low in residues. Generally, say organic experts, it makes the most sense to buy organic versions of foods that you and especially your growing children eat a lot of. But if your main concern is nutrition, it's unclear whether organic is more healthful.

Subject: Pesticide content in fruits and vegatables ranked by EWG. You are what you eat!

Test Results: Complete Data Set

Rank (worst to best)

Commodity

Combined Score

Percentage of Samples Tested with Detectable Pesticides

Percentage of Samples With Two or More Pesticides

Average Number of Pesticides Found on a Sample

Average Amount (in ppm*) of All Pesticides Found

Maximum Number of Pesticides Found on a Single Sample

Number of Pesticides Found on the Commodity in Total

1

Peaches

100

96.6%

86.6%

3.1

1.134

9

42

2

Apples

89

92.1%

78.9%

2.5

0.901

9

37

3

Sweet Bell Peppers

86

81.5%

62.2%

2.4

0.138

11

64

4

Celery

85

94.1%

79.8%

3.0

0.413

9

30

5

Nectarines

84

97.3%

85.3%

3.0

0.576

7

26

6

Strawberries

82

92.1%

69.1%

2.2

0.843

8

35

7

Cherries

75

91.4%

75.8%

2.8

0.290

7

25

8

Pears

65

87.2%

47.4%

1.6

0.544

6

32

9

Grapes - Imported

65

85.3%

53.4%

1.7

0.291

7

32

10

Spinach

60

70.0%

31.2%

1.1

1.240

6

24

11

Lettuce

59

58.9%

33.0%

1.3

0.108

9

49

12

Potatoes

58

81.0%

18.0%

1.0

1.655

4

18

13

Carrots

57

81.7%

48.3%

1.6

0.046

6

31

14

Green Beans

53

65.4%

39.0%

1.3

0.187

6

34

15

Hot Peppers

53

55.0%

27.5%

1.0

0.290

6

51

16

Cucumbers

52

72.5%

31.7%

1.2

0.057

6

40

17

Raspberries

47

47.9%

23.3%

0.9

0.906

6

21

18

Plums

45

56.2%

10.2%

0.7

1.359

4

17

19

Grapes - Domestic

43

61.4%

21.8%

0.9

0.107

6

29

20

Oranges

42

83.3%

28.8%

1.2

0.084

4

15

21

Grapefruit

40

62.3%

22.6%

0.9

0.530

5

9

22

Tangerines

38

66.7%

33.3%

1.2

0.375

3

4

23

Mushrooms

37

60.2%

22.3%

0.9

0.158

5

16

24

Cantaloupe

34

54.9%

20.1%

0.8

0.028

4

21

25

Honeydew Melon

31

59.2%

14.2%

0.8

0.012

4

16

26

Tomatoes

30

46.9%

13.5%

0.6

0.029

5

16

27

Sweet Potatoes

30

58.4%

10.0%

0.7

0.198

3

17

28

Watermelons

28

29.4%

14.0%

0.5

0.028

6

18

29

Winter Squash

27

39.8%

12.6%

0.6

0.019

5

16

30

Cauliflower

27

72.4%

8.1%

0.8

0.004

3

4

31

Blueberries

24

27.5%

10.0%

0.4

0.327

4

11

32

Papaya

21

23.5%

5.0%

0.3

0.053

4

19

33

Broccoli

18

28.1%

3.2%

0.3

0.004

3

19

34

Cabbage

17

17.9%

4.8%

0.2

0.121

3

18

35

Bananas

16

41.7%

2.0%

0.4

0.029

2

7

36

Kiwi

14

15.3%

3.4%

0.2

0.160

3

8

37

Sweet Peas - Frozen

11

22.9%

2.3%

0.3

0.010

2

5

38

Asparagus

11

6.7%

0.6%

0.1

0.026

2

19

39

Mango

9

7.1%

0.5%

0.1

0.057

2

13

40

Pineapples

7

7.7%

0.6%

0.1

0.002

2

7

41

Sweet Corn - Frozen

2

3.8%

0.0%

0.0

0.005

1

3

42

Avocado

1

1.4%

0.0%

0.0

0.001

1

2

43

Onions

1

0.2%

0.0%

0.0

0.000

1

2





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