Sunday, December 7, 2008

We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I do not know

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry

Thomas Paine

We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I do not know

Matthew Arnold


Peach or Banana? Spinach or Broccoli?

Anila Jacob, MD, MPH

Environmental Working Group

An ever-increasing number of Americans are now opting for organic fruits and vegetables to reduce their families' exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. But organic produce can cost up to 50% more than conventionally grown, nonorganic produce and is not available in all markets.

Organic is the best choice if you are considering one of the 12 fruits and vegetables that are most heavily contaminated with pesticides when conventionally grown. Peaches, which are the most heavily contaminated, can contain up to nine pesticides per peach. By comparison, onions, which are the least contaminated with pesticides, contain no more than one pesticide per onion. (However, food-safety experts advise that the health benefits of eating produce -- organic or nonorganic -- outweigh the risks associated with pesticide exposure.)

But you don't have to buy organic all the time to reduce your exposure to pesticides.


For several years, studies have shown that pesticides, when given to animals, can cause a variety of adverse effects, such as birth defects, cancer and damage to the nervous system. When researchers at the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute for Environmental Health Science reviewed more than 300 studies (most of them epidemiologic -- research based on the health information of large numbers of people), they found links between pesticide exposure (agricultural, occupational or residential) and several types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, leukemia and prostate cancer. Pesticide exposure also has been linked to a variety of problems affecting the nervous system, including headache, dizziness, depression, dementia, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.


To help consumers choose produce wisely, scientists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington, DC, analyzed nearly 51,000 tests for pesticides conducted by the USDA and the FDA.

Every fruit and vegetable on the list received a score based on different measures of pesticide contamination, ranging from the percentage of samples that had detectable levels of pesticides to the total number of pesticides found.

The results of this analysis were used to rank the pesticide toxicity of 44 commonly eaten fruits and vegetables (mostly fresh) -- from the most heavily contaminated to the least contaminated. The resulting "Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce" is available on the EWG Web site:


Please pass the fear: Five food myths dispelled

Seemingly endless scares contribute to a general unease that makes it hard to discern – and to enjoy.


Special to The Washington Post

You made it through Thanksgiving. No one contracted campylobacter from the turkey or E. coli from the creamed spinach. You even survived Mom's famous sweet potato casserole. But now you're eyeing the leftover stuffing in your fridge, feeling vaguely anxious. Is it safe to eat? Is anything safe anymore? It can be so hard to keep up in this world of endless food scares. One minute we're alarmed by salmonella in jalapenos. Now it's melamine in milk from China. What next?

Endless fear of food isn't healthy. During the same period in the 1980s and '90s when the American health establishment was pushing a fear of fat (specifically anything delicious such as butter), the nation got fatter. When all food seems scary, a kind of apathy sets in. We fail to distinguish real frights from bogus ones. And we forget about a little thing called pleasure.

Our food hysteria has spawned many myths, most of which take us farther and farther away from the simple pleasures of a good meal:

1.         The American food supply has never been so dangerous.

This is the least safe time in history for eating, right?

Wrong. If you find it terrifying feeding your family now, try imagining yourself in Washington or New York from the 1850s to the 1900s.

You try to buy vinegar; you are sold sulfuric acid. Your peas come greened with copper, giving you a dose of heavy metal poisoning with every bite. Spices are bulked with breadcrumbs or sawdust. Children's candies are colored with poisonous lead. Canned goods are laced with copper, tin and toxic preservatives. You buy "fresh country milk" to feed your baby, only to be sold disgusting swill milk from cows kept in stables attached to distilleries and fed on the alcoholic "mash" left over from liquor production. To disguise its thin bluish appearance, swindlers have thickened it with plaster of Paris and colored it yellow with molasses. There's a good chance your baby will die from drinking it, as a reported 8,000 infants in New York City did in 1857.

Or what about meat? If you think industrial meat production is scary today (and you're not wrong), you could at least be grateful that you're not living in the part of Chicago known as Packingtown in the early 1900s. Sausages contaminated with rat dung, spoiled hams disguised with chemicals and "potted chicken" that was really rotten pork were just a few of the scandals exposed by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel, "The Jungle."

OK, so our food supply today isn't perfect (there are still Twinkies). But it has been much worse.

2.         Packaged food is safer.

When we feel scared, we want to put our faith in something.

Lots of people put their faith in food that comes in packets.  Some part of us knows that a SnackWells cookie isn't as healthy as a fresh carrot, but at least it can't be tampered with.
Right?  Maybe it's nostalgia for reading the back of the cereal box as a child, but we feel oddly reassured by labels. Look! It's fortified with thiamine; it must be doing me some good.
In fact, packaged food is potentially less safe than unpackaged food. It passes through many hands before it reaches the consumer, increasing the odds that it has been tampered with at some point along the way.

Labels are reassuring only when they tell the truth. Plenty of packaged food is mislabeled – as is the case with the formula scandal in China, which has affected well-known brands.
Besides, the healthiest and safest food – produce bought loose from a farm stand or food that you have grown, raised or cooked yourself – needs no label or package at all.

3.         People who buy organic food don't have to worry.

Curb the smugness. Not all "organic" food is created alike. Organic beef is not necessarily from grass-fed cows. Organic apples may still contain pesticide traces. In June 2007, the USDA approved 38 non-organic ingredients for inclusion in "organic" products, including 19 colorings, hot dog casings and a bulking agent. Not exactly purer than pure. Plus, as with any other culinary fetish, "organic" is a target for swindlers. There have been numerous cases of organic food fraud in recent years – mass-produced eggs passed off as "organic freerange," for example.

Similarly, our fixation with EVOO – as Rachael Ray has dubbed extra virgin olive oil – has fueled a rise in olive oil fraud. Unscrupulous Italian dealers take low-grade soy oil or "lamp oil" made of spoiled olives and color it green with chlorophyll so that it resembles the finest extra-virgin. So your "Mediterranean diet" doesn't necessarily keep you safe.

4.         Science makes our food less healthy.

We like to think that scientists are the food bad guys – plotting to fill our diets with unnatural additives. Actually, we owe a huge amount to the quiet behind-the-scenes work of scientists – the food detectives who do their bit to uncover food fraud. Swindles are increasingly sophisticated and it takes complex forensic science to expose them. In recent years, scientists have used DNA fingerprinting to uncover fake basmati rice, isotopes to detect "honey" that was really corn syrup and spectroscopy to reveal fraudulent orange juice (made by bulking out real juice with pulp wash, a liquid made from exhausted orange pulp).

5.         Eating safely comes down to individual behavior.

If we all take personal responsibility for washing fruits and vegetables and cooking poultry until it's piping hot, surely we'll be safe.

Not so. Food safety is largely a question of politics. The Chinese dairy scandal showed what happens when a government fails catastrophically at regulating its food supply. You get a scenario – as in American cities in the 1850s – where it becomes almost impossible to make safe food choices.

Sure, the FDA should do a whole lot more to oversee the American diet. Don't forget, though, that it does at least protect us from this kind of endemic poisoning. We may not be out of Sinclair's "Jungle" yet. But stop being scared for a moment, and you can still cook yourself a good supper tonight.

We haven't always been so lucky.

Bee Wilson is the author of "Swindled: The Dark History of Food Fraud."

Her book is here:


Food is an important part of a balanced diet.

Fran Lebowitz

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You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.

Harlan Ellison