Your guide to pesticides in produce
Did you know that pesticides remain inside fruits and veggies even after they have been washed? That the pesticides can’t be washed or peeled off? Every day we are ingesting a cocktail of chemicals – about 230 different pesticides and pesticide by-products on peaches, apples, spinach, grapes, cucumbers and almost the entire produce section of your supermarket.
That’s why buying organic is non-negotiable for me, especially when it comes to the dirty dozen, which is a list of produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues. Thought it would be helpful to pass along what I know to be true, in your guide to pesticides in produce.
For 2018, the Environmental Working Group singled out the following list of produce, in descending order, (from highest amounts of pesticides to lowest):
Strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers.
This means that more than 98% of samples of produce tested positive for pesticide residue. One single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides. Can you imagine? And spinach samples had 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than most other crops.
So how do we know that pesticides are harmful to your health?
Most of the data comes from studies of farmworkers who toil in the soil regularly, being exposed to all these chemicals, year after year. Long-term pesticide exposure has linked this group to increased risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, ovarian and prostate cancer, depression and respiratory problems. Even folks living in the farm communities are at risk for chronic health problems.
Even though we aren’t handling the crops, we are still exposed through food, air and water. Yes, most pesticide residues are below EPA tolerance guidelines, which some advocates of pesticide use show as “proof” that the health risks are minimal — but research used to set those limits is sadly lacking.
In 2010, the President’s Cancer Panel, an expert committee that monitors the USA’s cancer program, wrote, “The entire U.S. population is exposed on a daily basis to numerous agricultural chemicals. … Many of these chemicals have known or suspected carcinogenic or endocrine-disrupting properties.”
Let’s clear up a few myths
Consumer Reports National Research Center found that American consumers have a few misconceptions about pesticides and organic produce:
Can peeling a fruit remove or reduce the amount of pesticides?
The USDA only measures pesticide residue for the edible portion of a vegetable or fruit. The inedible peels and rinds are removed. The truth is that the produce grows in contaminated soil, and those chemicals and pesticides grow right into the fruit.
Do pesticides get into the water supply?
Yep…! Most Americans don’t seem to be too concerned with water contamination, but according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, most of the streams in the U.S. contain pesticide residue.
Isn’t it more important to buy local rather than organic?
Local to what, exactly? It doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that the produce was grown on a farm close to your community. While buying local gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling for supporting our local growers, it says nothing about the levels of pesticides and/or chemicals that are being applied to the produce.
Organic, however, is strictly regulated, as discussed in this post, so you know that you are getting produce without the application of any pesticides.
What about my kids?
Aside from farmers, children are at the greatest of exposure to toxic chemicals in produce. Since their metabolism is different than ours, toxins remain in their little bodies much longer, where they can do more damage.
Pesticide exposure can affect their development – especially when they are babies and young toddlers, because their organs and nervous systems are still developing. Plus, their risk is more concentrated because they eat more food relative to their body weight than we do as adults, according to Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
Can pesticides be washed away?
A lot of people I speak with, think that peeling fruits or vegetables removes or reduces the amount of pesticides they ingest, and I’ve also heard folks say that you can remove the chemicals by washing the produce.
To a certain extent they are right, because rinsing removes the residue on the surface, along with the dirt and bacteria. But the pesticides can’t really be washed away because they stick to the skins of the fruit, and the wax coatings trap pesticide residue.
Some pesticides are systemic, meaning that they are taken up by the plant’s root system and get into the fruit or vegetable so they can’t be washed off at all.
Speaking of washing, just wash the produce in running water. You don’t need to use soap or special vegetable washes. Using a vegetable brush is also helpful in removing residues, germs and dirt.
Does all my produce have to be organic?
The risk of pesticide use has been proven, and even without all the studies that have been done, it seems pretty obvious that we don’t want to consume fruits and vegetables that have been grown in chemical-filled soil, or sprayed with toxic pesticides.
So, what is the risk-benefit ratio? When I think of buying organic, or buying conventional, or not buying any produce at all, I have to think that buying conventional produce is still better than nothing.
We know that consuming fruits and vegetables as often as possible, and as much as 3x a day, can lower the risk of stroke, high-blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes.
Your guide to pesticides in produce
The bottom line is that the risk of NOT consuming any fresh fruits and veggies is much greater than consuming conventional options. In other words, organic is best, because it lowers your personal exposure to pesticides and chemicals, and making that choice also supports a sustainable agriculture system.
But your primary goal should always be to eat a plant-strong diet, rich in many types of fruits and veggies, and if the organic choice is too expensive or not available, then go with a low-risk conventional option. There are enough choices out there, and you’ll never run out of options, organic or otherwise.