In our modern world, almost no food is 100% free of pesticides. Surprisingly, even organic produce may contain some pesticide residues due to cross drift. That’s when an organic farm borders a conventional farm. The chemicals can cross over in the air or water run-off.
Let’s look at why pesticides are used in the first place.
Pesticides are used to control pests that may damage crops or carry diseases, such as mosquitoes, ticks, rats, and mice. They are also used to control weeds.
There are many categories of pesticides:
Herbicides – Designed to kill or limit weeds. Glyphosate, which is manufactured by the company Monsanto and used in the production of their weed-killer, Roundup, is one type of herbicide commonly used on conventional (non-organic) crops. This common herbicide has been linked to cancer and endocrine disruption.
Insecticides – Type of pesticide used to target and kill insects. Organophosphates are a group of insecticides commonly used on produce. Chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate, has been linked with damaging the developing brains of children.
Fungicides – Triticonazole and other fungicides are specific types of pesticides used to control fungal disease. This prevents plant mold or rot.
A large and ever-growing body of evidence links exposure to pesticides to an elevated rate of chronic diseases including:
- Neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and ALS
- Birth defects
- Reproductive disorders and Infertility
- Respiratory diseases such as Asthma, COPD, and more
These are very real and documented risks for those exposed to pesticides. Many of the more severe cases often happen to agricultural workers, ground keepers and landscapers, who are exposed to pesticides on the job. This is one reason the average migrant farm worker in the U.S. is reported to live only to the age of 49 (as reported in the ‘Center for Farmworker Families’).
A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association, found an alarming association between consuming high pesticide residue foods and fertility problems among participants in the Harvard University EARTH study. Women who reported eating 2 or more servings per day of conventional produce were 26% less likely to have a successful pregnancy. A previous study of male participants found similar associations for their fertility.
Why Does Organic Produce Have Pesticides?
Many shoppers choose organic foods because they believe they are grown and produced without the use of pesticides. But nearly all farmers — even organic farmers — use some pesticides.
Why would organic farmers use pesticides? It is a daunting challenge to bring a good size crop to harvest. Like conventional farmers or anyone who has a backyard garden, organic farmers are faced with weeds, insects, and plant diseases. Although it’s very disappointing to find out the organic apples you’re buying at $2.99/lb still have pesticides, there’s still good scientific evidence as to why it’s better to buy organic?
Most of the pesticides on the USDA Organic national list of allowed substances are natural in origin.
Conventional farmers are allowed to use 900 different synthetic pesticides. But organic farmers are allowed to use only 25 synthetic pesticides – and, then, only in carefully regulated ways.
Nate Lewis, farm policy director for the Organic Trade Association and organic farmer, states, “I don’t like the narrative that organic is pesticide-free. It’s not. However, I’ve seen that organic farmers are very judicious in their use of pesticides. Their goal is to choose the least-toxic approach possible to reduce environmental impact and pesticides are the last resort.”
Is Choosing Organic Produce Really the Safest Choice?
Although it has been shown that organic produce can still contain pesticides, the research by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other Environmental Agencies has shown that eating organically grown foods substantially reduces your exposure to both pesticide residue and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is backed by research from Stanford University, which analyzed 17 different studies comparing the health effects of organic and conventional foods.
While choosing organic is probably the safest option for everyone, it’s especially important for pregnant women and children to avoid exposure to pesticides.
Children are at higher risk for pesticide toxicity than adults. This is because the developing brain is more susceptible to neurotoxins and the dose of pesticides per body weight is likely to be higher in children.
Children whose mothers were exposed to high levels of pesticides have been found to have lower IQs compared to children with the lowest levels of pesticide exposure.
Also, children exposed to pesticides are at an increased risk for a variety of chronic conditions, including learning and behavioral problems.
According to a study in Pediatrics, higher than median levels of pesticide residue in the urine were associated with double the odds of ADHD compared to those with undetectable levels.
The Most Important Foods to Buy Organic
It’s no secret that the cost of organic produce is significantly higher than conventionally farmed produce. The reason being that organic farms are typically smaller than conventional farms and, on average, take more time to produce crops. Also, little to no chemicals equals more labor. The cost of all-natural fertilizer is far more expensive than chemical counterparts used in conventional farming.
But here’s the reality… Maybe you can’t always choose organic produce because it’s just not in the budget. Here’s what you need to know.
Certain conventional fruits and vegetables have much higher levels of pesticides. Fortunately, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an American environmental organization for research, publishes the ‘Dirty Donzen List’, yearly.
This is a list of the most and least contaminated produce. Each year, crop yields are re-tested and the EWG updates its findings every year. The produce with the highest amount of pesticides begins with Number 1 and will slightly decrease as you go down the list. For instance, #1 Strawberries has a much higher pesticide concentration than Sweet Bell Peppers.
Here is their list of the most contaminated produce (most important to buy organic) known as the Dirty Dozen:
- Sweet Bell Peppers and Hot Peppers
- Sweet corn (Note: could be GMO)
- Sweet peas, frozen
- Papayas (Note: could be GMO)
- Honeydew Melon
EWG also has a free app to download on your phone or tablet that will give you convenient access to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ List.
Does Rinsing Produce Eliminate Pesticides?
The abbreviated answer is…No. Although pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables accumulate on the outer peel or skin, this does not form an impermeable barrier. Many pesticides are actually designed to be absorbed into the tissue of the fruit or vegetable to protect it from pests that have the ability to penetrate the skin.
Thicker peels, however, may be more effective at keeping pesticides out of the flesh of some fruits like cantaloupe or watermelon.
The Best Way to Wash Produce
Does your method of washing your produce include rinsing it under running water? Join the club. That’s what most people do. Although this method will remove some of the surface pesticide residues, a significant amount will still remain behind either on the surface or in the flesh of the produce.
Several liquids have been shown to be more effective than just plain water. Those include salt water, vinegar water, or baking soda water.
Washing Produce with Salt Water and Vinegar
Salt water is one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to remove certain pesticides.
In a study published in Food Control, researchers washed vegetables for 20 minutes in vinegar, a salt water solution, or plain water to eliminate the residue of four common pesticides – chlorpyrifos, DDT, cypermethrin, and chlorothalonil.
They discovered that a 10% salt water solution was more effective than washing with plain water.
Full-strength vinegar was found to be equally as effective. But using vinegar would get quite expensive and would leave foods with an unwelcome vinegary flavor, making it less than ideal for a daily vegetable wash.
The Best Method to Remove the Most Pesticides
A new study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, found that a baking soda and water solution was by far the most effective method for removing pesticides from fruits and vegetables. It was found to be effective at removing pesticide residues both on the surface and beneath the skin.
The baking soda solution used in the study was a weak solution (one ounce of baking soda mixed with 100 ounces of water), and required 12 to 15 minutes of soaking time to completely remove the pesticides.
Since, most people do not wash vegetables for longer than a couple of minutes, we’ve adapted the results of these studies to a more practical everyday use.
Here’s a quick and easy way to wash veggies using baking soda:
- 4 Tablespoons of Baking Soda
- 100 oz of water
- Soak for 10 minutes
- Drain and rinse
Rinsing Method: For leafy greens
- Fill a salad spinner with greens, then fill with water.
- Add a teaspoon of baking soda and mix well.
- Soak your greens for a minute, swish, dump, then rinse, and spin dry.
- If you don’t have a salad spinner, you can add the greens, water, and baking soda to a bowl, let them soak, drain in a strainer, rinse, then pat leaves dry with a clean lint-free kitchen towel or paper towels.
For other veggies
- Fill a large bowl with water.
- Then add a teaspoon of baking soda.
- Add the veggies.
- Soak for a minute or two.
- Scrub with a brush.
- And finally, rinse off the veggies.
InsightsAccording to research at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, women who have adequate levels of B vitamins are more likely to get pregnant and stay pregnant even with high levels of the common pesticide DDT, which is known to have harmful reproductive effects.
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