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A Functional Medicine Approach to Organic Produce

A functional medicine approach to organic produce from Dr. Mark Hyman – excerpt from his book, Food, What the Heck Should I Eat?...

For most of human history, all agriculture was pesticide-free. But that changed dramatically after World War II, when companies that produced chemical weapons for the war began to sell their toxins (former biological weapons such as poison nerve gas) to farmers to kill off weevils, wireworms, beetles, and other agricultural pests. By the 1950s, American farmers were regularly spraying their crops with vast quantities of DDT, an endocrine disruptor and carcinogen. In the 1970s, DDT’s harmful side effects in humans and wildlife became widely known thanks to Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. Public outrage led to a nationwide ban on its use in agriculture in 1972, but by then scientists had already developed whole new classes of chemicals to spray on produce. Today, more than 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used in farming each year—a quarter of it in the United States alone.

Pesticides became a mainstay as a way to increase the yield and profitability of farming. But there’s plenty of evidence that they’re neurotoxic and carcinogenic for those of us who eat them.

A large meta-analysis in the journal Neurotoxicology found that chronic exposure to some common pesticides significantly increased the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Farming is one of the most dangerous occupations because of that. Studies in adults and children have also linked pesticide exposure to kidney, pancreatic, prostate, breast, and stomach cancers, as well as respiratory problems and depression. Wind and runoff carry these harmful chemicals from farms into rivers and surrounding areas, affecting even those of us who don’t consume them in our food. And they linger in the environment—and our bodies—for decades. In a 2005 report, the Environmental Working Group found DDT in the umbilical cords of babies before they even took their first breath. These toxic chemicals stick around for dozens or sometimes hundreds of years, even after their use is banned or stopped.

But you can greatly lower your exposure to pesticides by eating organic. A 2015 study funded by the EPA found that consumers who often or always bought organic had significantly less insecticide in their urine, even though they ate 70 percent more produce than people who bought only conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, organic is often costlier, which can be an obstacle for many people. Is it worth it? In some cases, absolutely. The Environmental Working Group ranks the fruits and vegetables that are most contaminated with pesticide residue. That list, known as the Dirty Dozen, can tell you which foods you must buy organic. The EWG also keeps a list of the foods that have the least amount of pesticide residues, known as the Clean Fifteen. You can go to for the lists and background report in its entirety.

The EWG research turned up some interesting information:

· The average potato has more pesticides by weight than any other produce.

· A single sweet bell pepper sample contained fifteen different pesticides.

· Kale, collard greens, other leafy greens, and hot peppers are not among the Dirty Dozen, but they are “of particular concern” because residue tests conducted by the USDA found especially toxic pesticides, “including organophosphate and carbamate insecticides. These are no longer detected widely on other produce, either because of binding legal restrictions or voluntary phase-outs.”

My advice: Buy these organic.

Half of the foods on the EWG Dirty Dozen list—the ones that contain the highest pesticide residues—are vegetables.

Here are the vegetables we should buy organic when possible:




Bell peppers

Cherry tomatoes



Collard greens

Other leafy greens

Hot peppers

Here are the ones you can more safely buy nonorganic when your options are limited:


Frozen sweet peas





The best way to find fresh, local food is to grow it yourself. If that’s not an option, you can buy a share in a nearby farm’s output by joining a CSA (community supported agriculture) organization. Barring that, you can shop at the nearest farmers’ market. Visit either of these two sites for help finding one:

Local Harvest: Community Supported Agriculture:

USDA: Local Food Directories: National Farmers Market Directory:

Local Farms, Farmer's Markets & CSA’s

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