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Organic Panic

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When it comes to purchasing produce, there are 12 pesticide-laden items that are well worth the extra coin to buy organic. The Environmental Working Group has classified the following foods as the low-down "dirty dozen": peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, lettuce, imported grapes, pears, spinach and potatoes. Studies have shown that consuming the organic versions of these items can reduce your exposure to pesticides by a whopping 90 percent.

But not everyone can afford a weekly jaunt to the Co-op. Prices on organic products vary, generally hovering between 10 and 40 percent higher than that of non-organic produce. Consumerreports.org lists that organic Idaho potatoes cost 101 percent more than conventional potatoes.

So why is it worth skipping those crispy McDonald's french fries and going with homemade organic wedges? Because although potatoes are No. 12 on the list, even steel wool can't scrub off all the chemicals that are easily absorbed through the tubers' thin skin. And especially for pregnant women and young children, the effects of these pesticides can be devastating. Early results of ongoing research on the adverse effects of ingesting pesticides indicate they may cause cancer, birth defects and nervous-system damage.

Some of the worst produce items to consume in non-organic form are fruits. Nectarines, peaches and apples have been found to have the highest concentrations of pesticides, as well as the highest likelihood of containing multiple pesticides. Because these sweet delicacies are loved not only by humans, but also bugs big and small as well, they are drenched in chemicals to keep the critters at bay. Pesticides are known to pool in the top and bottom craters of apples and seep down through the cores.

Vegetables are plagued by high-pesticide content, too. Celery sucks ridiculous amounts of chemicals from the ground up through its stringy veins. In the EWG vegetable study, celery took the award for highest percentage of samples containing pesticides as well for the biggest variety of pesticides detected on one sample. The runners-up to celery were sweet bell and green peppers.

Generally, a good rule to follow when selecting which produce to buy non-organic is, "If it has a peel, it's a steal. If you eat the skin, it'll do you in." Most vegetables and fruits with thin skins are the ones that most easily absorb toxic chemicals. Fruits like avocados, mangos, bananas and kiwis have relatively low pesticide content compared to strawberries, cherries and imported grapes. Another good piece of advice is don't buy non-organic fruit in its off-season. In the winter, fresh full grapes are more than likely shipped from a warm climate, where many American pesticide regulations aren't observed.

Though it would be ideal to buy all of our foods organic—or better yet, grow all of them in our own backyard gardens—for most, that isn't always an achievable reality. So, the next time you're at the grocery store, keep the dirty dozen in mind and realize the small preventative steps you can take to improve your health down the line. Here's even one more reason to shop local: a USDA study shows that 40 percent of local organic farmer's market producers don't charge a premium on their produce. How do you like them apples, Albertsons?

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