Keep produce pesticide worries in perspective

  • Monday, June 16, 2014 3:55pm
  • Life

Question: I gulped down a handful of juicy red grapes as we ran out the door. My friend Chris munched on an apple as we drove out of town. Later we shared a bowl of strawberries and other assorted berries. Should we worry?

Answer: According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — a non-profit organization whose stated mission is “to protect public health and the environment” — these are a few of the foods targeted on their scary-sounding “Dirty Dozen” list; foods they found to have higher levels of pesticide residues. The EWG recommends you buy the organic version of these foods.

Not so fast, says the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) — another non-profit that represents farmers of organic and conventional crops. This organization (www.safefruitsandvegetables.com) says conclusions reached by the EWG may unnecessarily scare people from eating perfectly safe and healthy food.

The issue, says food toxicologist Carl Winter from the University of California at Davis, stems from the methods used by the EWG to come up with their “Dirty Dozen” list. It’s not just the presence of one or more residues on a food that determines risk, he says. It’s the amount. His research on the same foods found the potential risk from exposure to pesticides — on organic as well as conventionally grown crops — is negligible.

To put this in perspective, says the AFF, a child could eat 154 conventionally grown apples in one day with the highest pesticide residue ever recorded by monitoring agencies and still not reach a level that would have any effect on health.

So the point seems not so much whether a fruit or vegetable is grown with the use of organic or conventional pesticides but whether or not we are eating those fruits or vegetables.

Truckloads of studies over the past decades show without a doubt the health benefits of eating fresh produce. And these studies have largely been conducted using those that have been grown conventionally. It’s been estimated for example, that we can have a 42 percent lower risk of dying prematurely if we eat at least seven servings of fruit and vegetables a day. (A “serving” is 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw, organic or conventionally grown).

Even the EWG, which publishes the “dirty dozen” list, confirms “the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh risks of pesticide exposure.”

As one expert said, we should all try to minimize the amount of pesticides on the food we eat. But we don’t have to avoid conventionally produced foods to meet that goal.

Should we eat more vegetables and fruit? Yes. Can we safely choose produce that has been grown organically or conventionally? Yes.

I applaud all our American farmers who groan under the weight of intense food safety regulations to assure we have the safest food in the entire world.

And I trust the AFF recommendation: “Read, learn, choose but eat more organic and conventional fruits and veggies for better health and longer life.”

Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at bquinnchomp.org.

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