There is a growing demand for fresh fruits and vegetables across the United States thanks to an increased awareness of their nutritional and health benefits. However, with this new lifestyle arise questions of safety. Is my produce safe to eat? Do I need to be washing this produce? What happens if I don’t, or don’t do it well enough?
With a rising demand for healthy food options such as fruits and vegetables comes paralleled technological and biological advancements to meet these new needs. The presence of pesticides in our fresh produce is a growing concern. Non-organic farmers use synthetic pesticides to kill weeds and insects. When the plants are sprayed with pesticide, the toxicity doesn’t “fall off.” Plants absorb the pesticides as they grow, and the chemicals remain in the flesh of the produce and on the outside skins even after a quick rinse or peel. Over years these pesticides accumulate in our bodies with damaging and lasting effects. Remember the widespread use of DDT? This toxic chemical was used as pesticide control in the 1970’s and continues to cause breast and other cancers, male infertility, miscarriages and low birth weight, nervous system damage, lower IQ, and many more developmental issues. The pesticides we use today result in the same problems, yet none are banned.
The risk for pesticides varies from low to high, based on what the pesticide is and where in the country it is grown. Individual produce has been ranked from low to high risk. These assessments include the amount of pesticide residue found on each food, the frequency the pesticides were found, and the toxicity of each of the pesticides. Traces of pesticides are most harmful for developing children because not only do they eat more food relative to their size, they have a harder time processing the chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group; an American organization specializing in research and advocacy in toxic chemicals, agricultural subsidies, public lands, and corporate accountability; has released their list ranking the most contaminated fruits and vegetables because they know that people don’t want to consume pesticides, especially when they are linked to a wide range of health issues. They stress that it is important to avoid the foods with the highest amounts of pesticides; such as apples, peaches, nectarines, and strawberries; or buy organic-free of pesticides and chemicals- if possible. This now brings to the table the economic battle of eating healthy for both nutrient consumption and pesticide avoidance when faced with the increased cost of purchasing only organic.
The FDA makes it very clear that all produce should be washed before eating. However, water isn’t enough either! In order to remove the pesticides on the surface, the addition of dish soap still isn’t sufficient. Instead, we need to be utilizing fruit and vegetable washes that contain mixtures of vinegar and baking soda. These washes are a stronger and capable of removing more surface pesticide residue. However, regardless of the method employed, no form of washing is 100% effective. So you may wonder, “what’s the point?” Although it’s impossible for commercial brand “produce washes” to remove every remnant of pesticide, they get most harmful compounds from the surface. Note that even organic, prided on being pesticide free and safe to eat, can easily come into contact with the harmful chemicals during transport and in supermarkets, making washing just as important.
The answer to the initial questions is yes, you should be washing your produce. Most produce we consume raw, and if the food is steamed only a small portion of harmful chemicals are carried off into the steam, meaning the remainder stays in and on our food. And yes, eating fresh produce is safe. The best way to be safe is to be aware. In general, the surest way to limit pesticides is to purchase USDA-certified organic when possible. When too expensive or hard to find, washing produce with water is a must. Being knowledgeable on the specific fruits and vegetables that carry the highest risk when not washed should be a guide when prioritizing organic versus non, remembering that washing both high and low risk produce is necessary to remain healthy