Fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy diet for most people. After all, they provide vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients essential for staying healthy, strong, and active.
But among plenty of people, there is a growing concern not about what we eat, but about what’s on what we eat!
When it comes to buying healthful produce, one big question mark in a lot of people’s minds is pesticides. In fact, in a 2013 survey, nearly half of Canadians expressed a belief that “food pesticides” posed “a major risk to health.”
So, what’s the story? Are there pesticides on your favorite fruits and veggies, and if so, what can you do about it?
“The Dirty Dozen” of Pesticides
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental research group based in Washington, D.C., issues a list of the produce items with “with the highest loads of pesticide residues.”
As the EWG explains, these are the fruits and vegetables that “[test] positive for a number of different pesticide residues” and contain “higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce.”
In 2018, the so-called “Dirty Dozen” list included (in descending order):
- Sweet Bell Peppers
In contrast, the EWG also compiles a list of produce items “least likely to contain pesticide residue.” This year, that list included avocados, sweet corn, cabbages, onions, mangoes, and eggplants, among others.
The Problem with Pesticides
So, why care about pesticides on your produce?
Well, research suggests that exposure to excessive amounts of pesticides can have serious health effects, especially on sensitive groups like young children, pregnant women, and people trying to conceive.
For instance, one landmark study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine suggested that “intake of high–pesticide residue fruits and vegetables was associated with a lower probability of live birth” among women seeking fertility treatment.
Similarly, an earlier Harvard study found that “men who ate fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticide residues” were more likely to have issues with fertility, compared to men who ate produce with lower residue levels.
Long-term studies have also suggested that children can be affected by excessive exposure to pesticides. Several different studies have indicated that prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides can lead to developmental and behavioral issues with children. There is also evidence linking exposure to certain pyrethroid pesticides to increased rates of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and young teens.
A Healthy Approach
So then, the question becomes: When it comes to pesticides, how much is too much? Are you actively in danger if you snack on “the Dirty Dozen”? (Or any other fruits and veggies, for that matter?)
Many health experts argue that the average person is likely to be in the clear. For instance, one study published in the Journal of Toxicology argues that “exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides . . . pose negligible risks to consumers.”
Popular Science also points out that the amounts of pesticide residue on produce detected by the EWG “all fell below the acceptable limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency [EPA].” But, as Popular Science puts it, “legal limits aren’t infallible.”
“Human exposures and their bodily impacts are difficult to study (and oft under-studied), and too often we don’t know exactly how a particular pesticide might affect us. If the EPA bases their acceptable limit on faulty science, it may overestimate how much exposure we can tolerate. And that’s assuming that the EPA is even doing their job properly in the first place.”
This is an important factor to keep in mind!
In many ways, the EPA and other regulatory bodies have actively helped consumers when it comes to pesticide exposure. Take the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996; this sweeping act totally transformed regulations about pesticides, and led to “many of the most toxic pesticides” being “withdrawn from many agricultural uses and banned from household” products, according to the EWG.
But at the same time, our base of scientific knowledge is always growing – and critics would argue that standards aren’t always adapting to keep up. For instance, a growing body of research from the early 2000s suggested that the pesticide chlorpyrifos was unsafe for humans. And yet the EPA has actively chosen to avoid banning the chemical, leading to prolonged legal fights and challenges.
As with most things, it’s a good idea to be an educated consumer, and to take time to research and come to your own conclusions.
What Can You Do to Limit Your Exposure?
Now, one important thing to keep in mind? Experts agree that you shouldn’t let a fear of pesticides stop you from eating fruits and veggies! Many of the items on the EWG’s list are superfoods in their own right. Plus, eating nutritious produce is a cornerstone of plenty of popular diets, whether you’re sticking to the Mediterranean diet or going “Paleo.”
So, what should you do if you want to get your daily dose of produce, while minimizing your risk of being exposed to pesticides? Here are a few methods that may help:
1.) Buy Organic Produce
In some cases, opting for organic produce may help limit your exposure to pesticides. Many organic fruits and vegetables are grown with natural alternatives to pesticides. NBC News reports that some farms deploy “protective insects” instead of synthetic pesticides, while other urban farms use hydroponics and grow food in greenhouses, which helps reduce the need for any pesticides altogether.
Another advantage to buying local and organic? As Popular Science points out, when you take steps to buy your produce directly — such as at a farmer’s market — you can often discuss growing methods (including pesticide use) with a representative from the farm, allowing you to make a more informed purchasing decision.
2.) Wash Your Produce Thoroughly
Washing your produce is important! In addition to helping you get rid of excess pesticide residue, treating your fruits and veggies before you feast can help get rid of bacteria and germs that could make you sick.
The University of Maine encourages people to wash their produce with “clean potable cold water” to get rid of pesticides, bacteria, and dirt. You may also wish to use a vegetable brush for produce with thick skin, and take time to soak vegetables with lots of nooks and crannies, like broccoli or lettuce. After you’ve washed your items, be sure to dry them with a clean paper towel, to help remove any residue that may still be clinging to the outsides.
One more thing? Be sure to wash organic produce as well! As Modern Farmer puts it, “even organic farms with carefully controlled conditions can’t assure that produce won’t be contaminated in transit or in stores.” Better to be safe than sorry!
3.) Use a Home Remedy
Want to go beyond tap water? There are a few home remedies that may help you remove even more pesticides from your fresh produce.
Some food experts recommend using a solution of water and salt or vinegar to help get a more thorough clean. A study from the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry found that soaking produce in a mixture of water and baking soda for a few minutes also help to remove a significant amount of pesticide residue.
Keep the Conversation Going
What do you think about the threat of pesticides on food? Do you have a favorite way to clean your fresh produce? We’d love to keep the conversation going! Drop us a line on Facebook to let us know what you think!
And remember, when you want a “fresh” perspective on all things health and life insurance, the Enrollment Specialists can help! For answers about group health plans, life insurance, Medicare supplements, and more, don’t hesitate to get in touch today!