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We ingest lots of chemicals, one way or another. We breathe them, we drink them, and we eat them. The most troublesome are pesticides in produce. It makes me uncomfortable to think that while we are eating fruits and vegetables, we are also ingesting poisons that can accumulate in our bodies and make us very sick. This is food is supposed to be healthy and good for us!

Even if the most toxic chemicals have already been banned for use in agriculture, pesticides are poisons designed to kill insects, weeds, small rodents, and other pests. The long term effects of these poisons on people are not completely known. Even the minimal risk with these pollutants is too much when we consider that we might be exposing children to them. We should try to make every effort to minimize our intake of these adverse chemicals.

Education is the key. Knowing which produce contains more pollutants can help us make the right choices by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least polluted, or buying organic instead. Studies have shown that changing consumers’ eating habits can considerably lower their ingestion of pesticides.

The results of an investigation on pesticides in produce by the USDA Pesticide Data Program* show that fruit topped the list of produce that is consistently most contaminated, with eight out of the 12 most polluted foods being fruits. The dirty dozen are apples, bell peppers, celery, cherries, imported grapes, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, red raspberries, spinach, and strawberries.

You don’t like broccoli? Too bad, because they are among the least contaminated produce. In fact, the 12 least polluted produce are asparagus, avocados, bananas, broccoli, cauliflower, sweet corn, kiwis, mangos, onions, papaya, pineapples, and sweet peas.

Can washing produce help get rid of pesticides? Not really. The fruits and vegetables tested by the USDA PDP * are “prepared emulating the practices of the average consumer” before testing for pesticides. That is, “(1) apples are washed with stems and cores removed; (2) asparagus and spinach have inedible portions removed and are washed; (3) cantaloupes are cut in half and seed and rinds are removed; […] and (9) tomatoes are washed and stems removed.”

Washing before consuming is highly recommended because it helps decrease the pesticide residue present on the surface of the vegetables, but the majority of pollutants are absorbed into the plant and can’t just be washed away. Some pesticides are specifically created to stick to the surface of crops and don’t come out by washing. Peeling can help eliminate some of the chemicals but not all, and a lot of important substances will be discarded with the skin.

So, on one hand, we have to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables for a healthy diet, and on the other hand, we have to reduce the intake of pesticides as much a possible. What do you do if you are unconvinced by the claims of chemical companies that certain levels of pesticides are not dangerous?  

We have very few options to defend ourselves. We can try to (1) wash all vegetables and fruits very well; (2) change your eating habits to consume more of the produce with low pollutants; (3) consume a diet as varied as possible; (4) buy organic foods.

Anna Maria Volpi - ©

(*) Data and methodology can be downloaded directly from the USDA PDP (Pesticide Data Program) page.
Can we avoid them?
By Anna Maria Volpi

Why unfortunately, just washing vegetables

is not enough to ensure produce

clean enough for consumption.