(Organic Slant) Knowing the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide can make you a healthier shopper. Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit organization devoted to human and environmental health, has guidelines for you to use at the grocery store.
Each year they publish a listing of the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide that should be avoided unless they are available from known local growers, grown at home, or labeled as organic. They also identify which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables have low levels of pesticide and can be bought without too much compromise.
This year’s list has been expanded from the traditional Dirty Dozen to the Dirty Dozen Plus, which includes the 14 worst offenders. Once again, apples topped the list of fruits and vegetables, with 98 percent of apples tested found to contain pesticides. The Clean 15 list of conventional fruits and vegetables was topped by onions.
EWG analyzed data from scientists at the Department of Agriculture and the FDA to determine which foods are contaminated with pesticides. In addition to letting us know the percentage of each kind of fruit or vegetable containing pesticides, EWG also publishes the number of different kinds of pesticides used. For example, conventional grapes were found not only to have a high pesticide load, but were contaminated with as many as 15 different pesticides!
Why should you worry about pesticides?
Anything that kills pests is also toxic to you and your family members. There is an endless parade of research demonstrating the toxicity of pesticides to human health and to the environment, even at doses considered “safe” by the industry and government. This research has linked pesticides to many toxic effects including nervous system disorders, cancer, hormone disruption, liver and thyroid dysfunction, and skin, eye and lung problems.
According to EWG, “Even in the face of a growing body of evidence, pesticide manufacturers continue to defend their products, claiming that the amounts of pesticides on produce are not sufficient to elicit safety concerns. Yet, such statements are often made in the absence of actual data, since most safety tests done for regulatory agencies are not designed to discover whether low dose exposures to mixtures of pesticides and other toxic chemicals are safe, particularly during critical periods of development.” Most studies are done using high doses and are designed to find only the gross, obvious toxic effects. In the absence of low dose studies and studies that run for an extended period of time, pesticide and chemical manufacturers claim safety where none has been demonstrated or proven.
Children bear the highest risk
Pesticides pose a risk to vital organ systems from conception to maturity. Exposure to pesticides during critical periods of development often has lasting negative effects that manifest throughout the lifetime. Because the metabolism, physiology and biochemistry of a child is different from an adult, a child is often less able to metabolize and inactivate toxic chemicals, and can be particularly vulnerable to their harmful effects. Pesticides that may have no harmful effect on the mother can damage the nervous system, brain, reproductive organs, and endocrine system of a fetus.
This year’s Dirty Dozen Plus (ranked in descending order of pesticide load)
3. Sweet Bell Peppers
6. Nectarines (imported)
11. Blueberries (domestic)
13. Green Beans
This year’s Clean Fifteen (ranked in ascending order of pesticide load)
2. Sweet Corn
6. Sweet peas
12. Sweet potatoes
EWG stresses that over all it’s better to eat fruits and vegetables containing pesticides than to not eat fruits and vegetables at all. But items from the Dirty Dozen Plus list should be bought organic whenever possible. If buying organic fruits and vegetables from that list is not possible, substitute fruits and vegetables from the Clean 15 list.
Without public outcry, the government will continue to cave in to big agribusiness
The fact that the government is allowing the use of pesticides on produce does not mean it is safe to eat that produce. A look back in history shows that the government once approved the use of such damaging and deadly pesticides as DDT, chordane, dursban and others. Without public outcry these chemicals might still be found on produce. Despite the threat to the population, the government moves very slowly, and only when the mountain of evidence against a pesticide can no longer be ignored. Pesticide manufacturers and agribusiness groups are some of the most powerful. They have fought the government every step of the way in its achieving the pesticide laws now in place.
Even so, the U.S. has stringent governance of pesticides and their use compared to other countries likely to export produce. Produce from other countries often contains higher levels of pesticides, and these pesticides are more deadly. Two years ago, EWG study tested grapes from both domestic and foreign sources. The results of that testing revealed the glaring difference in magnitude. Grapes from foreign countries carried a pesticide load of 66, compared with grapes grown in the U.S. with a pesticide load of 44. This difference exists across the whole range of fruits and vegetables grown in foreign countries compared to those grown domestically. Included in this difference is produce that is canned and frozen, as well as produce sold fresh. It also includes produce used in processed or prepared foods that come from foreign countries. Look for a label of origin on fresh produce before you buy.
Pesticide is systemic
Many people are still operating under the myth that pesticide can be washed off. It is a myth that even health oriented grocers like to exploit by selling special vegetable washes for the uninformed. This research is a clear demonstration that pesticide cannot be washed off. It was done after the tested produce was washed and in many cases peeled.
Pesticide is taken into the plant as it photosynthesizes, and it becomes contained in every cell of that plant. No amount of soaking, scrubbing, or washing with special compounds can get it out. The plant and the pesticide have become one.
Corporate farming methods have increased the need for pesticides
Pesticide is expensive. Growers only use pesticide when they absolutely must. The need for pesticide is so great because crops produced by the large corporate farms are grown with very little regard for soil conditions. It is the quality of the soil that determines the quality of the plant. Poor quality plants are weak and unable to fend off pests. When one pest has attacked a crop, it is weakened even further and is less able to fight off the next pest assault. This snowball effect is why some crops have so many different pesticides used on them.
A weakened plant riddled with pests and pesticides is able to produce only a poor quality fruit or vegetable. This is why most conventionally grown produce is so lacking in taste and appeal compared to organically grown produce. The hidden factor is that most conventionally grown produce is lacking in nutritional quality as well.
The best choice: say “no” to conventionally grown produce
There is much value in this research. People on budgets can look at it and tell instantly what conventional produce can be bought without taking a big chance with their health, and they can also see which produce should be bought only when it has been grown organically, by a local grower who can be trusted, or grown in one’s own garden. It also underscores the need to buy only domestically grown produce or grow your own. And it is a reminder that the consumer is ultimately king, because produce will only be grown conventionally as long as people are willing to buy it that way.
This research is also a sad commentary on the state of the food supply. All that conventionally grown produce sitting in the stores will be eaten by someone. Out of all the produce tested, only onions, pineapple, avocado and cabbage showed to be truly safe. Sweet corn should be avoided because of the high probability it is genetically modified. Buying any of the others when grown conventionally involves some kind of trade-off between money and health, a trade-off that should not have to be made.
For more information and complete list of pesticides on produce: