There is a lot of consumer misconception out there about pesticides used on fruit/vegetables.
How harmful are they? And is the rumor true that “organic” produce has pesticides?
Pesticides have been used for national agriculture since 1940. There are four main pesticides we use:
- insecticides (for killing insects)
- herbicides (or weedkillers)
- fungicides (to kill mold)
- other pesticides that kill other pests and forms of bacteria
The dilemma is that while pesticides prevent crops from being eaten by well, pests — we end up eating these toxins in our food supply.
That’s how “organic” became a critical part of our food vocabulary. The U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA] routinely updates a strict list of harmful pesticides that organic produce farmers are prohibited from using. Although organic produce does not mean pesticide-free, it does mean that very few toxic ones are used.
Every year, the USDA tests more than 40,000 samples of fruits and vegetables in our food supply, excluding honeydew, melons and kiwis (which are tested by the FDA), and publishes public data from its pesticide residue findings.
This week, the Environmental Working Group [EWG] in Washington, D.C., released their annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” where they ranked 47 popular fruits and vegetables based on USDA and FDA data.
Kale, for the first time ever, made EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list. More than 90% of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
Avocados and sweet corn topped their “Clean Fifteen” list this year, with less than 1% of samples having detectable pesticides. Other clean fruits and veggies include: pineapple, frozen sweet peas, onions, papayas, eggplants, asparagus, kiwis, cabbages, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew melons.
Public Goods: Kale made the third spot on your ‘Dirty Dozen’ list this year. Why is kale suddenly on the list?
Carla Burns: The USDA has not tested kale for about a decade. Popularity with kale has grown. It’s on all the store shelves [and] many salad bars you go to. The acres of kale harvest has grown in the U.S. since 2009. But we did not have data for the last 10 years, so we finally have the newest and latest data for kale.
PG: What are the other big takeaways from the list this year versus last year?
CB: Since last year, the list has been pretty consistent. There haven’t been many changes with the exception of kale. A bigger takeaway is that nearly 70% of conventional [non-organic] produce sold in the U.S. still comes with pesticide residues on it. Overall, we found about 225 different pesticides that are consumed commonly by Americans. Looking at our ‘Clean 15,’ which have fewer residues, more than 70% of them had no pesticide residue.
PG: What are tips for consumers to reduce their risk of pesticide exposure?
CB: We’ve been doing the Shopper’s Guide since 2004. The main reason we do this is to inform consumers so they can actually make the best decision on how to reduce exposure to pesticides for both themselves and their families. We suggest to opt for organic varieties of items that are found on our ‘Dirty Dozen’ list. But we do understand that organic is not available and feasible for everyone’s budget. We do suggest focusing on the ‘Clean Fifteen’ to buy conventional versions of [those] items.
PG: Given that ‘organic’ produce might not always mean an absence of pesticides, what should consumers know about shopping organic?
Sarah Graddy: There are really strict requirements for organic produce in the U.S. Some are allowed, but very few. Many of the most toxic pesticides are not allowed to be used on organic. When there are testable levels on organic, it’s because of wind drift –– pesticides drifting onto organic produce.
CB: There was a study that came out that looked at participants eating a conventional diet and then they switched to an all-organic diet, and there was a 60% reduction of pesticide levels measured in their urine.
PG: What are the best DIY-methods that consumers can do at home to wash their produce?
CB: Washing is important, but we suggest cold water. Peeling it if the outside skin is inedible. While washing produce does reduce pesticides, it does not eliminate them completely. Some plants can absorb pesticides throughout their entire plant. We have not evaluated any commercial products or DIY methods.
Some wellness blogs have suggested mixing cold tap water with white vinegar or baking soda. There is also the option of special produce cleaners. At the very least consumers should use cold tap water for a thorough wash.
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