Monday, May 24, 2010

Before you buy: Blueberries

I know, I know, you were wondering how I was going to tie in the whole "berries" thing, right? First the background. My great-grandma, whom I knew very well as she died when I was 20, owned a farm in southern Washington where she grew blueberries and strawberries. We always went to visit during berry season to pick berries. (Having to pay for blueberries and strawberries still feels very foreign to me and I hate it!) One summer, I stayed alone with her for two weeks and helped out in the u-pick shed weighing berries and taking peoples' money. It is a very treasured memory of mine.
Now that I am grown, and she is gone, one way I am reminded of her constantly is by my son's absolute love of blueberries - fresh or frozen. My grandparents have blueberry bushes in their backyard that came from that farm and every year we get to enjoy a little bit of tradition and it is a special treat.
(Photo anecdote: I have this photo hanging above my kitchen sink. It is actually a greeting card by a photographer, Myron Rosenberg. I saw it in touristy shops in Alaska and had to bring one home since how often do you see a greeting card of your great-grandma while on vacation? He took the picture while visiting her farm in 1982. This is what she looked like while out in her fields, although usually she also had white zinc-oxide smeared all over her cheeks to protect them from the sun. She was a feisty Finnish lady.)
My great-grandma was very adamant about not using pesticides on her berries. The closest thing she had to pest-control was an air cannon with a motion-sensor to scare away the birds. She believed that blueberries could cure almost anything. Maybe they are magical since she lived to be almost 99. I miss her very much.
Fast forward to now. A friend of mine wrote a blog post about how she is determined to eat better and posted a link to something called "the dirty dozen." I had never heard of it, so I did some research and what I found, I felt like sharing. There are 12 fruits/vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticides, as well as 15 that carry the least. This list was created by the Environmental Working Group. They spent 10 years studying 49 fruits and vegetables and then have listed them from most riddled with pesticide to least. The thing that scares me the most about this list is that the produce was tested AFTER it was washed.
So, without further ado, the full list of 2010 (1 being lowest pesticide levels, 49 being highest):
1 (Best) Onions
2 Avocado
3 Sweet Corn (Frozen)
4 Pineapples
5 Mango (Subtropical and Tropical)
6 Sweet Peas (Frozen)
7 Asparagus
8 Kiwi Fruit (Subtropical and Tropical)
9 Cabbage
10 Eggplant
11 Cantaloupe (Domestic)
12 Watermelon
13 Grapefruit
14 Sweet Potatoes
15 Honeydew Melon
16 Plums (Domestic)
17 Cranberries
18 Winter Squash
19 Broccoli
20 Bananas
21 Tomatoes
22 Cauliflower
23 Cucumbers (Domestic)
24 Cantaloupe (Imported)
25 Grapes (Domestic)
26 Oranges
27 Red Raspberries
28 Hot Peppers
29 Green Beans (Imported)
30 Cucumbers (Imported)
31 Summer Squash
32 Plums (Imported)
33 Pears
34 Green Beans (Domestic)
35 Carrots
36 Blueberries (Imported)
37 Lettuce
38 Grapes (Imported)
39 Potatoes
40 Cherries
41 Kale / Collard Greens
42 Spinach
43 Sweet Bell Peppers
44 Nectarines
45 Blueberries (Domestic)
46 Apples
47 Strawberries
48 Peaches
49 (Worst) Celery

I *thought* I knew what to buy organic, but I was pretty wrong in my assumptions. The scary part is that of the dirty dozen, we spend most of our summer eating about 8 or 9 of those and most of the time I don't buy organic because it's a lot more expensive. I was so very sad to see blueberries on that list the very day I had gone to the store and brought home a pint to surprise my son with. I felt like I was serving him toxic food. On the bright side, it was nice to learn the general rule that tropical fruit is the safest. My baby boy loves his mangoes and so I don't have to spend a fortune while we going through about 4 per week.
I am very tempted to make a little note card to carry in my wallet so I can remember this list at the grocery store.
The organic food debate is an interesting one. While it's true that if we stayed away from anything that might be harmful, we wouldn't be able to eat anything, I think it's important to make some effort. For example, pesticides affect children much more powerfully than adults, from what I've read. As a mother, I owe it to my children to feed them the best food I can. You might even call it an investment in their future. I found THIS article which was truly terrifying. It suggests a link between pesticides used on fruit and children with ADHD or even leukemia. This made my heart skip a few beats since my son truly does gorge himself on berries frequently. Yikes!
The thing I like about this list is that it's not suggesting we need to buy ALL organic produce, just helping us to prioritize. I'm going to be a lot more careful about my fruit and berries this summer! As consumers, we have the power to change the way farmers grow food and the kinds of foods grocery stores sell. If my great-grandma could speak before the joint House and Senate of Washington State when she was in her 80s about the importance of small farms, surely we can pay more attention to what we buy at the grocery store. This is why we joined a CSA a couple of years ago. Not only is it a nice supplement to the rest of the food we buy, but helps local farmers and we get fresh-from-the-ground organic produce - like stuff that still has dirt on it. The unexpected benefit of it is that we have been forced to try out all sorts of vegetables that we never even noticed at the store. We have discovered a love for chard, escarole and parsnips, among other things. The down-side is that I now know what a persimmon tastes like and I wish I didn't.


  1. I've talked with a doctor about this who feels that the fruits and vegetables whose skin we eat, it is vital that they be organic. Those that we toss the peel of, it's not as important. Of course, then we are putting our toxic peels into our compost, so that poses another problem.

  2. I am adamant about only eating organic apples and blueberries. I just read somewhere that pesticides in conventional blueberries have been linked to childhood ADHD or something like that....