Many consumers know it's a good idea to incorporate plenty of fruits and veggies into their diets, but these days, the popularity of organic foods has made many shoppers wary of conventionally-grown produce with pesticides.
Farmers use them to protect crops from insects, weeds and diseases and, though they're generally regarded as safe when consumed in regulated amounts, public officials at the World Health Organization have acknowledged that, at certain levels, pesticides can be toxic.
So what's a supermarket shopper to do? It’s not like you can just give up eating produce — and you shouldn’t — but if you're looking to reduce the amount of pesticides in your kitchen, there are several steps you can take.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization which receives funding from organic food purveyors like Stonyfield and Annie’s Homegrown, just released its annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which ranks pesticide contamination of 47 popular fruits and vegetables.
The 2018 guide includes the “Dirty Dozen” (produce with the highest levels of pesticide residues) and the “Clean Fifteen” (produce that's least likely to contain pesticide residues), giving consumers a cheat sheet on which fruits and vegetables are best to splurge on for organic, and which ones you can buy conventionally-grown.
On top of the Dirty Dozen list? Spinach and strawberries.
Also included on the list are nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, sweet bell peppers and hot peppers.
“We know that eating fruits and vegetables is a key part to a healthy diet,” EWG’s Senior Analyst Sonya Lunder, the guide’s lead author, told TODAY Food. The purpose of the report, she explained, is to give consumers information on what they’re buying.
A 2017 study conducted by Harvard researchers suggested that there may be a link between consumption of produce with higher pesticide residues and fertility. Women who reported eating two or more servings per day of produce with higher pesticide residues — compared with women who ate an average of just one each day — were 26 percent less likely to have a successful pregnancy.
But the USDA's annual Pesticide Data Program Report (PDP), found that "more than 99.5 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residues well below benchmark levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 22 percent had no detectable residue."
When asked about the USDA's data, Lunder told TODAY Food that maximum residue limits are set to make sure farmers are using pesticides as labeled. She pointed out that there’s still uncertainty among scientists about some pesticides that may be harmful to humans, citing chlorpyrifos as an example. It’s a widely-used insecticide, and exposure to it has been associated with children’s developmental issues. But a proposed ban of it was recently aborted by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt.
Joshua Lambert, Associate Professor of Food Science at Penn State, said the most important thing to consider with pesticide exposure — or anything else that’s considered toxic at certain levels — is the dose and frequency of exposure. “Take, for example, a person out in the field spraying pesticide,” he explained to TODAY Food. “They have a much greater risk than someone casually exposed to it in [his or her] diet.”
He added that pesticide residues found on items like strawberries are relatively low and people aren’t usually eating them every day. “It’s a great idea to not be exposed at all, but it’s not realistic,” he said, noting that many Americans already don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.
If you don't have access to organic produce at all, there are plenty of conventionally-grown fruits and veggies that the EWG says showed much fewer pesticide residues when tested. The Clean Fifteen on this year’s list include avocados, grapefruit and cauliflower. (See the full list here.)
“In general, produce with a thick outer peel that you don’t eat is going to have less pesticide residue than leafy greens and produce with a soft, edible skin,” said Lunder.
Lambert said if shoppers are worried about the Dirty Dozen list, they shouldn't be too quick to swear off all produce on their shopping lists for good. “It's important to keep in mind what you put in your body, but keep these things in perspective,” he said, adding that washing fruits and vegetables helps remove external pesticide residues and soil contaminants.