Conscience vs. Budget in the Vegetable Aisle: How to Pick Your Produce

Woman comparing peppers in grocery store
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Wandering through the produce section of your local store can sometimes feel like running a gauntlet of uneasy moral choices. Organic or non-organic, cheap vs. expensive, locally grown or long-distance food, it often seems like every piece of fruit comes packaged with a set of uncomfortable choices ... and the wrong ones can lead to higher costs and poorer health.

In general, the answer is that compromise can be your friend. If your main goal is eating healthily, sometimes you'll need to pay more -- and sometimes you'll need to buy food that was grown halfway across the country. The key is realizing when you need to make an exception, and when you don't.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers to help you eat your best without breaking the bank.

When You Should Buy Organic ... and When You Shouldn't Worry

With all the horror stories surrounding pesticides and fertilizers, it's easy to understand why so many people have switched to organic fruits and vegetables. Organic veggies are grown without synthetically created chemical pesticide and fertilizers, genetically engineered proteins and ingredients, or sewage sludge, and they're not irradiated. For people who don't want their grapes to come with a side order of industrial chemicals, this can be a huge relief.

The thing is, as great as buying organic sounds, it doesn't always matter. For many fruits and vegetables, their skins and peels, plus standard preparation techniques, provide a natural barrier to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group, a corporation that focuses on sustainability, has identified "the Dirty Dozen" and "the Clean 15" -- 12 fruits and vegetables that you should try to buy organic, and 15 for which -- health-wise -- it doesn't matter.

The Dirty Dozen are strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes, spinach, bell peppers, celery, peaches, apples, nectarines, pears, and potatoes. For some, like strawberries and spinach, it's easy to see how their thin skins make them extra vulnerable to pests and diseases -- and, at the same time, easily contaminated by chemicals. Others, like peaches and apples, are tree fruits, which are liberally sprayed with pesticides. It also doesn't help that the dirty dozen are among the most popular fruits and veggies -- which means that they are grown in huge monoculture farms, which tend to use more chemicals.

The Clean 15 are asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, and sweet potatoes. In some cases, such as pineapples and cantaloupe, it's easy to see how thick skins could protect the fruits from pests and chemicals. In other cases, like onions, natural pesticides probably help things along. As for eggplants and asparagus, the fact that they are less popular means that they are grown in smaller tracts -- which have fewer of the problems that are generally associated with vast monocultures.

How Many Roads Must Your Food Drive Down?

Another common ethical food question is locally grown vs. long-distance produce. Trucking fruits and vegetables across the country, shipping them by boat -- or, worse, flying them -- releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. As an added plus, locally-grown food takes less time to get to your table -- which means that it can often be more nutritious and have fewer chemicals than non-local foods.

There are also other issues. In terms of sustainability and economic growth, locally-grown foods support your local economy, especially if you buy them from independent farmers. They can also support food diversity, as small farms are less likely to rely on monocultures. And then there's the fact that fresher foods often taste better.

Of course, a lot can depend on where you live. Many areas -- including my home in New York -- can have very limited offerings in the winter. If I was a strict locavore, my December diet would lean heavily toward late season veggies, hardy, easily-preserved veggies like cabbages and potatoes, with frozen and pickled food thrown in for variety. And the pickles and frozen peas, of course, have their own problems, including large amounts of salt and lower levels of nutrients.

For that matter, the way your food is raised may have a major impact on its carbon footprint. As James E. McWilliams noted in Forbes, lamb production in New Zealand is less carbon-intensive than those in Great Britain, -- so much so that shipping lamb from the land of kiwis and hobbits is still less environmentally damaging than growing it in England. The same is true for those of us in the U.S.: often, it's less environmentally damaging to ship food from overseas farms than grow it locally.

When it comes right down to it, eating well is more important than eating local, which means that, if you have to decide between a locally-grown turnip and a non-local lemon in the middle of cold season, you're probably better off with the lemon. In other words, eat local if you can afford it, and import it when you can't.

The 10 Most Risky Foods, According to the FDA
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Conscience vs. Budget in the Vegetable Aisle: How to Pick Your Produce
Sprouts may look harmless, but they can harbor both Salmonella and E. Coli, which have caused outbreaks over the years. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that seeds can become contaminated before sprouting. The second is that they grow in warm and humid climates, which are perfect conditions for bacteria to flourish.
As with sprouts, Salmonella is the most common culprit in tomato-related outbreaks, followed by the norovirus. Tomatoes can become contaminated either through their root systems or small breaks in the tomato skin. Be sure to cook your tomatoes thoroughly before eating, and be careful when ordering them when eating out: 70 percent of reported illnesses were contracted through tomatoes served at restaurants.
Even kids who hate to eat their fruits and veggies aren't immune to food-borne illnesses. A 1994 Salmonella outbreak was traced an ice cream company using the same truck to transport raw unpasteurized eggs as it used to move ice cream mix. Pregnant moms need to take extra care, as well, as the Listeria bacteria can survive on metal surfaces like those used in ice cream shops.
As with ice cream, the dangers in cheese are primarily traceable to two culprits: Salmonella and Listeria. Soft-cheeses are particularly prone to harboring Listeria.
Believe it or not, potatoes themselves are almost never to blame for outbreaks. Instead, people get sick from all the things that potatoes come into contact with between being pulled from the ground and served up on your plate. Salmonella, E. Coli, Shigella and Listeria have all caused outbreaks in the past. Contamination from other ingredients in things like potato salad, as well as from bacteria that live on deli counters, is often to blame.
Not surprisingly, seafood causes many sicknesses. Oysters are the second-most common culprits in seafood-related illnesses. The creatures are sometimes harvested from waters containing the Norovirus, which causes intestinal inflammation. But the more dangerous Vibrio bacteria can cause a host of illnesses, including -- in people whose immune systems are compromised -- fevers, chills, skin legions, and even death.
When it comes to contamination, tuna ranks as the most dangerous seafood for human consumption. Almost all cases of sickness were caused by Scombrotoxin, which is not caused by a bacteria or virus, but rather is the result of tuna decaying, due to not being refrigerated immediately after being caught. Scombroid poisoning can lead to nausea, cramps, and diarrhea, and the toxin can't be eliminated through cooking or canning.
Between them, the top two foods on this list have caused more illnesses than the rest of the list combined. Not surprisingly, Salmonella is the most common culprit in egg-linked outbreaks. Salmonella survives in the intestinal tracks of chickens, and can only be assuredly killed by cooking eggs thoroughly.
Though leafy greens might seem harmless -- and indeed, healthful -- it actually makes sense that they account for so many outbreaks since greens are rarely cooked at temperatures that kill harmful bacteria. Norovirus was responsible for 64 percent of the reported cases, and is often transmitted when handlers have not washed their hands. Salmonella and E. Coli each accounted for 10 percent of the outbreaks as well.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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