The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington-based non-profit organization that studies food contaminants, has released new studies on pesticides on produce we all eat. The EWG uses several criteria to categorize fruits and vegetables in terms of the amount and varieties of pesticides found on them.
With Some Fruits and Vegetables
“Organic” Is Definitely a Better Choice
The group has compiled a list of food items it calls the “Dirty Dozen,” intended to warn consumers about high doses of pesticides, which may reach levels of harmfulness, especially to young children and expecting mothers.
While the EWG’s “Shopper Guide to Pesticides” urges people to reduce exposure to pesticides as much as possible, it also emphasizes that conventionally grown (that is non-organic) produce is still preferable to not eating fruits and vegetables at all. Still, it says that consumers should lower pesticide intake by avoiding or restricting consumption of the most contaminated foods.
According to clinical data cited by the group, pesticides in high amounts have been linked to brain- and nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone disruption as well as skin, eye and lung irritation.
The EWG acknowledges that the science linking pesticides to specific health problems has so far been less than conclusive. The group does not undertake studies on its own but relies essentially on data published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Their research is not so much built on the assessments of health risks from pesticides in general but rather on surveys of the overall quantities of pesticides used by agricultural industries.
At the same time, the EWG does not want to discourage anyone from eating fresh produce. “We recommend that people eat healthy by eating more fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic,” says Ken Cook, its president and founder.
Still, according to the EWG’s estimates, consumers could lower pesticide intake by up to 92% if they avoided the worst items on its list.
“Where is the produce industry in all of this?”, asks Marion Nestle, Professor at the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University. Unfortunately, she says, “produce trade associations are working hand-in-glove with the pesticide industry to attempt to keep information about these chemicals out of the public eye.” Professor Nestle calls for more research to shed some light the long-term health effects of pesticides on the public’s health. “I cannot imagine that pesticides are good for health. In high doses, they are demonstrably harmful for farm workers,” she says.
So, what can consumers do? Buying organic is always the best choice, according to the EWG and most other experts. “But sometimes people do not have access to that produce or cannot afford it, says Ken Cook. “Our guide helps consumers concerned about pesticides to make better choices among conventional produce and lets them know which fruits and vegetables they may want to buy organic.”
Washing produce thoroughly and peeling the skin off can also be useful measures, although the effects may be limited since many pesticides penetrate the outer surface and also enter most fruits and vegetables through the roots in contaminated soil.
Growing your own vegetable- and fruit garden in your backyard or on your balcony may be your best solution. Even a small plot can be made very productive and fulfill at least partially the needs of a family.
Apples rank high in terms of pesticide residue. If you don’t want to buy organic apples, apple juice may be a better choice. Similarly, canned peaches are lower in pesticides than fresh ones, simply because the processing involves vigorous washing, which removes the most concentrated residues.
Some imported fruits and vegetables may have higher rates of pesticides than locally grown ones. So, you may wish to inquire about the countries of origin before you buy. However, that does not mean that U.S. produced items are always the lowest in contamination.
The EWG’s “dirtiest”
The EWG recommends to buy the following fruits and vegetables organic whenever you can: 1. Apples, 2. Celery, 3. Strawberries, 4. Peaches, 5. Spinach, 6. Nectarines (imported), 7. Grapes (imported), 8. Sweet Bell Peppers, 9. Potatoes, 10. Blueberries (domestic), 11. Lettuce, 12. Kale/Collard Greens.
The EWG’s “cleanest”
The EWG found these items to have relatively low amounts of pesticide residues:
1. Onions, 2. Sweet Corn, 3. Pineapples, 4. Avocado, 5. Asparagus, 6. Sweet Peas, 7. Mangoes, 8. Eggplants, 9. Cantaloupe (domestic), 10. Kiwi, 11. Cabbage, 12. Watermelon, 13. Sweet Potatoes, 14. Grapefruit, 15. Mushrooms.