Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” - Michael Pollan, In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto
Down here in the warm, humid climate of the South, vegetables and fruits have a fairly long growing season. What a great blessing for us! We have a nice long tomato season, peaches are sweet and juicy for a couple months, and yellow squash and zucchini seem to proliferate...well...nearly eternally.Not that I’m complaining!
Now, we all know that doctors and nutritionists say that we should all eat more fruits and vegetables, and boy, that’s a wonderful prescription. We don’t mind that one bit, right?
However, when we walk into the grocery store we are faced not only with the decision of what vegetables and fruits to eat, but also we have to choose between organic and conventional produce. Should we choose everything organic and pay the extra money? Or is “organically grown” a gimmick and not worth it?
Apparently lots of shoppers in the aisle with you in the grocery store are starting to spend that extra money for organic food. The Organic Trade Association said that Americans bought nearly $40 billion worth of organic food in 2016, which amounted to about 5 percent of total food sales. That’s up from $28.4 billion in 2013.
However, the sometimes hefty price tag compared to conventional produce can leave shoppers like you and me wondering whether it’s worth it. In a study performed by marketing group Mintel, it was found that 51 percent of Americans believe that labeling a food “organic” is merely a marketing ploy, intended to persuade consumers to pay more for the exact same food.
Others, like author Michael Pollan, say that to choose conventional produce is to leave oneself open to possible cancer-causing chemicals.
It helps to know what earns a product the right to be labeled “organic.” The United States Department of Agriculture has the job of overseeing farms that wish to become certified organic. You can read all the technical details at the USDA website, but in short, the department requires that to be stamped organic, food must be grown using their approved methods.
“These methods integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used,” according to the USDA website.
These methods do come at a higher cost, of course, but many consumers have decided that extra dollar or two is worth it for what they believe to be better nutrition and fewer chemicals.
But is organic produce actually more nutritious than conventionally-grown produce? Some studies say yes.
Antioxidants, those nutrients which are said to help the body fight diseases like heart disease and cancer and protect our cells, have been shown to be more abundant in organic produce. According to a study performed by the prestigious British Journal of Nutrition, switching from conventional to organically-grown produce adds enough extra antioxidants to the diet to equal up to two more servings of fruits and vegetables a day.
Professor Carlo Leifert, who led the British study, told Newcastle University researchers that, “This study demonstrates that choosing food produced according to organic standards can lead to increased intake of nutritionally desirable antioxidants and reduced exposure to toxic heavy metals.”
So if it’s better for one’s health, but the grocery budget is tight, which organic vegetables and fruits are the best choices?
An independent watchdog organization, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), studies pesticide residue on commonly purchased fruits and vegetables in the U.S., and creates two annual lists, the “Clean 15” list of produce with the least amount of pesticide residue, and the “Dirty Dozen,” which are those fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue.
The EWG says they test the produce after it has been washed as the consumer would wash it at home, so the levels of pesticide residue would not change after the consumer takes the food home and cleans it. Since some plants absorb pesticides systemically, the group says, no amount of washing would remove the pesticides used, as they literally become part of the produce itself.
According to their latest study, the 12 worst offenders, the so-called “dirty dozen,” and those they suggest consumers buy organic versions of, are as follows:
Runner up: Peppers
Alternately, the EWG’s “Clean 15” list includes conventionally-grown produce that shows the smallest amount of residual pesticide residue after washing. If your budget is limited, these are the items that are least likely to expose you to those unwanted chemicals, meaning it’s not as important, in their opinion, to buy these organic:
2. Sweet corn
4. Sweet peas (frozen)
Ultimately, the EWG and other watchdog groups say that if you can’t afford organic produce, it is still better to eat properly cleaned conventional produce than it is to eat processed and sugary foods. While they recommend eating organics when possible, they are not saying that one should never eat conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables at all.
U.S. Apple Association president and CEO Jim Bair said in a recent news release, “The Surgeon General and leading health organizations agree there is far greater health risk from not eating fruits and vegetables than from any theoretical risk that might be posed by consuming trace amounts of pesticide residues.”
So, do eat up all the vegetables and fruits you can, whether organic or not, instead of processed foods like chips, dehydrated pre-cooked potatoes, macaroni with neon orange “cheese” powder, and sweets. Train your children and grandchildren to do so, as well, so they can feel good, have energy, and hopefully have stronger immune systems and longer lives. Plus, fresh food just tastes better!
Here are a few recipes that may help you enjoy your delicious, local when possible and thoroughly-washed summer produce over the next few months:
Summer harvest corn casserole
3 cups fresh or frozen corn
2 small-medium tomatoes, or one large tomato, chopped (or use halved grape tomatoes)
1/2 large green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 large red bell pepper, chopped
2 jalapeno peppers, seeds removed, finely diced
1 1/2 cups milk 5 tablespoons butter, melted
5 eggs, whisked
6 tablespoons flour
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon garlic powder
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 9x9-inch or 8x12-inch baking dish with cooking spray.
2. Combine all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Pour into the baking dish.
3. Bake for 45-50 minutes, remove from oven, and allow to set for 10 minutes before serving.
Sauteed balsamic vegetables with polenta and fresh mozzarella
One 5 ounce package of organic baby spinach, arugula or other greens
One fresh fennel bulb, chopped (found in most produce sections now...so delicious!)
One pound of fresh tomatoes, chopped (more or less...use the amount you have, or use canned in a pinch)
One small package fresh mushrooms, sliced (optional)
1 medium or two small zucchini squash, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
One cup (approximately) fresh mozzarella, cubed
One tube pre-cooked polenta (or serve over rice or grits)
Warm olive oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven.
Add the chopped fennel bulb, and stir around in the very warm oil for two minutes.
Add the zucchini and cook for three more minutes or more, but do not allow vegetables to scorch.
Add the chopped tomatoes, garlic, pepper flakes, vinegar and mushrooms. Stir and watch for the tomatoes to begin releasing their juices as they soften, and for the mushrooms to begin to shrink and darken.
After a few minutes, add the spinach or other greens.
Sprinkle with a half-cup of water or broth if the pan looks dry to you.
Stir and watch the greens cook down into the vegetables.
Taste for salt and add as needed. (I allowed the whole mixture to cook for 10-12 minutes so the fennel and zucchini would be tender., adding a bit more liquid as needed.)
Drop in a handful of fresh mozzarella cubes, if you have some handy.
Slice the polenta and slide the veggies over to one side of the pan, and place the slices on the bottom of the pan to heat, turning at least once. Sprinkle polenta with a bit of salt.
Place a round (or two) of polenta on a plate; top with a healthy serving of veggies, making sure everyone gets some of the melt-y cheese. Top with a bit of shaved Parmesan or Grana Padano, if you’d like.
Note: This vegetable mixture can also be served over grits or rice, and is delicious either way!
Gingered shrimp stir-fry for one
6 thawed, pre-cooked shrimp
3-4 green onions, thinly sliced
3 mushrooms, sliced
6 cherry tomatoes, halved (I used yellow ones)
1/2 a zucchini, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
1 cup frozen green beans
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ginger paste or fresh grated ginger, or 1/4 tsp dried ginger
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon chili paste, or sriracha or other hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 to 1/2 a red bell pepper, sliced into thin slivers
1 teaspoon seasoning blend, such as Mrs. Dash.
Sprinkle 1 teaspoon olive oil or canola oil in a 10-inch skillet. When the oil is very warm, add all the vegetables to the pan.
Sprinkle with the spices, garlic, pepper paste and ginger paste or powder.
Saute for 3-4 minutes, adding 1/4 cup or more warm water or broth to the pan if it begins to get dry.
Sprinkle the shrimp, in a separate bowl, with salt-free seasoning and some hot sauce or chili paste.
When green beans are tender, in just a few minutes, drop the thawed shrimp into the mix, and stir until everything is warmed through, and shrimp are pink. This should only take two or three minutes. Any longer, and you’ll end up with rubbery shrimp!
Sprinkle with salt, if needed, and stir in.
Serve over brown rice, grits, or whatever you like!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who still expect a chocolate Easter bunny every year. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com.