The U.S. Department of Agriculture says, “Make half your plate fruits and vegetables,” in its latest dietary guidelines, but a just-published list of the 12 most pesticide-laden produce could confuse those deciding what is both healthful and safe to eat. Topping the “Dirty Dozen” for 2011 are apples, celery and strawberries. Data for the list came from produce sampled between 2000 and 2009 from both domestic and imported sources and from around the country. Though the amounts of pesticides are well below established limits, analysts with the Environmental Working Group, who compiled the list, say they’re too high.
“It only means the pesticide levels are within legal limits. It does not mean they are safe,” Sara Sciammacco, of the Environmental Working Group, said, citing recent studies linking childhood pesticide exposure to problems with brain development, lower IQ and increasing incidence of ADHD. But Holly Herrington, a registered dietitian at Northwestern University, urges caution in interpreting the studies, and said, “So far, there is not a lot of research to support these findings.” A study published earlier this year in the peer-reviewed Journal of Toxicology, using the same USDA data from 2004 to 2008, said scientists found the levels of pesticides in 90 percent of cases from the 2010 Dirty Dozen were at least 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose — the concentration of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout life before risking harm. A person would need to eat “so much (of the produce on the Dirty Dozen) you can’t even imagine,” said Dr. Marion Nestle, author and professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. Still, for those trying to limit their exposure to pesticides, the Environmental Working Group recommends choosing organic produce whenever possible. But Herrington points out that organic does not necessarily mean pesticide-free. The USDA allows pesticide use on organic crops, though “the pesticides in organic agriculture are mostly natural, meaning they are found in nature and less toxic,” Nestle said. Here are some questions and answers from experts on pesticide exposure:
Q: Will washing remove pesticides?
A: The Dirty Dozen list came from produce that was washed for 10 seconds under cold water. “The USDA always recommends people wash their fruits and vegetables,” said spokesman Michael T. Jarvis. Herrington said washing produce can remove “some but not all of the pesticides.”
Q: Should produce be peeled to eliminate pesticides? Will this reduce the nutritional value?
A: “If the amount of pesticide is so small that it can barely be measured, it really doesn’t matter much,” said Nestle. “If people are concerned, they should scrub the apple or peel it.” Herrington said no nutrition is lost in peeling an apple. “The inner part of the apple is still very healthy for you,” she said. “You can throw away the outer leaves of a leafy vegetable and wash it.”
Q: Should families give up the worst produce?
A: “No. The amounts of pesticides are usually small and people who eat fruits and vegetables, with or without pesticides, are healthier than those who do not,” Nestle said. “If the choice is between a bag of potato chips and a conventional apple, we advise consumers to go with the apple every time. The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” said Sciammacco. Herrington said: “Americans are just not getting enough fruits and vegetables. Eating four to five servings of conventional produce with pesticides is still better than not (eating any) at all.”