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Organic Produce: To Buy or Not to Buy, That is the Question

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In addition to educating patients, at Friedman Diabetes Institute, I also mentor nutrition students. One of them, Samantha Russo, is a recent graduate from University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was interested in the organic food industry and decided to do some research. Here is what she found.

Organic Produce:  To Buy or Not to Buy, That is the Question

In today’s world, it is nearly impossible to avoid the numerous media sources discussing the hot topic of organic foods.  The buzz surrounding this topic has many people wondering a few things:  “Is it really necessary to make sure all of my produce is organic?” “Is organic produce more expensive than conventionally grown produce?” and “If I am on a budget, which items are the most important to buy organic?”  These questions are extremely common, so the Environmental Working Group, also known as the EWG, has created two separate lists detailing which foods should always be purchased organic and which ones are not as contaminated and therefore do not necessarily need to be bought organic. 

Before we discuss, what exactly does organic mean? It is important to mention that different countries have different standards regarding their policies on organically grown foods, and I will be discussing only those that pertain to the United States. Produce that is grown organically simply means that there are no synthetic pesticides nor are there any chemical fertilizers used throughout the growing process. Additionally, organic foods do not use industrial solvents, irradiation, or chemical food additives throughout the process of producing the foods. 

The term “organic” means that 95% of the ingredients used are grown completely organic; “made with organic ingredients,” simply means that 70% of the ingredients used are completely organic, and “contains organic ingredients,” means that the ingredients used in the food product contain less than 70% completely organic ingredients. There are even several studies that suggest organically grown foods contain a higher number of nutrients as opposed to their conventionally grown counterparts. Additionally, when purchasing organic foods, make sure the label reads “organic.”  Do not be fooled by other words such as “natural” and “no hormones added”, etc., which are not the same thing as organic.

The two following lists are respectively and appropriately known as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. I should note that recently the EWG has updated the Dirty Dozen list to include several more fruits and vegetables that contain high numbers of contaminants in addition to the twelve that are already on the list, updating its name to the Dirty Dozen Plus.

The Dirty Dozen Plus consists of the following produce:

  • apples                                                                        
  • peaches
  • celery                                                                                     
  • potatoes
  • cherry tomatoes                                                                   
  • spinach
  • cucumbers                                                                            
  • strawberries
  • grapes                                                                                   
  • sweet bell peppers
  • hot peppers                                                                          
  • kale/collard greens
  • imported nectarines                                                
  • summer squash

The Clean Fifteen is a list of fifteen produce items that contain the least amount of pesticides and other contaminants, and therefore are “clean” enough to be purchased conventional.  The skin or outer layer of these produce items are less permeable to contaminants as compared to those of the Dirty Dozen Plus produce items.

The Clean Fifteen includes the following fifteen produce items:

  • asparagus                                                                             
  • mangos
  • avocados                                                                               
  • mushrooms
  • cabbage                                                                                 
  • onions
  • cantaloupe                                                                            
  • papayas
  • sweet corn                                                                            
  • pineapples
  • eggplant                                                                                
  • frozen sweet peas
  • grapefruit                                                                              
  • sweet potatoes
  • kiwi

It is a good idea to keep these two lists on hand when shopping at your local grocery store, so that way you can see which food items you should always purchase organic, and which foods are acceptable to purchase conventional.

Furthermore, for those concerned with the higher prices of organically grown foods, it is a good idea to buy produce and other food items from your local farmers’ markets and co-ops, where the prices tend to be cheaper than those at large-scale grocery stores. If you are on a tight budget and decide not to buy the slightly more expensive organic food items, using a fruit and vegetable washer can help take off some of the pesticides and other harmful substances that may be on the surface of the produce. These can be store bought, or you can make your own by simply combining equal parts of white vinegar and water into a spray bottle, spraying the mixture onto your produce, rubbing it all over, and then rinsing it off.

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About the Author

Shelley Wishnick is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator.

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