The exact danger to humans of the pesticides used in growing fruits and vegetables is unknown. We do know, however, that humans suffer acute toxicity when these substances are ingested in large quantities. The more puzzling issue is how much pesticide exposure we get through our food is too much?
What We Know about Pesticides
Some pesticides are absorbed into the actual fruit or vegetable.
Different fruits and vegetables carry different levels of pesticides.
Long-term effects may include harm to the developing bodies of children, and damage that possibly causes cancer and neurologic problems.
Research is currently ongoing to find safer pesticides and safer methods for growing produce.
What are the worst foods to eat?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published a list of fruits and vegetables and rated them on their pesticide content. (Apples, I hate to say, are the #1 most polluted fruit/veggie.)
Should you avoid fruits and vegetables?
No. Even the EWG agrees that the health benefits of eating many fruits and vegetables outweigh the possible risks associated with their pesticide content. Their list is helpful, however, in making some educated decisions on which produce to buy. You can significantly decrease pesticide exposure by increasing your intake of some of the fruits and vegetables lower on the list.
Children are tricky because they tend to eat many of the same foods over and over again. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is important in limiting too much exposure to one particular type of produce.
Does washing fruits and vegetables help?
Somewhat--washing does decrease pesticide levels. Unfortunately, these EWG ratings are as good as they’re going to get, because all these fruits and veggies were tested after they'd all been washed and prepared in the way each would typically be eaten.
Cooking fruits and vegetables also decreases pesticide content, but beware of overcooking produce because that can decrease vitamin content. (We can’t win, I know!)
Should you buy organic?
Organic produce is pesticide-free, true, but it is more expensive and may not be available to everyone. The list from the EWG gives an idea of which fruits and vegetables are the worst offenders (e.g., apples, celery, and strawberries). You could consider buying organic versions of them, while buying regular versions of fruits and vegetables that are lower on the list.
Most importantly, the EWG’s list is not meant to cause panic in people and is certainly not meant to cause anyone to eat fewer fruits and vegetables. Consider the list to be a guide that will make you a more educated consumer. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to hope that technology comes up with some safer alternatives for growing our food.