I want you to eat more fruits and vegetables…

How often have we given this advice to our patients? Fruits and vegetables offer our patients a wholesome low calorie source of color, flavor, vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber. So we tell them to eat apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, and peaches and we think we are doing a great service to our patients. The problem is those five foods are the top five of the Dirty Dozen, as measured for pesticide residues by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) in 2014. Here is the dirty dozen for this year:

  1. Apples
  2. Strawberries
  3. Grapes
  4. Celery
  5. Peaches
  6. Spinach
  7. Sweet bell peppers
  8. Nectarines (imported)
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas (imported)
  12. Potatoes

Since the foods are tested every year, the list changes a little from year to year. Pears, blueberries, lettuce, and kale sometimes pop into the top twelve and some of the top 12 move down year to year.

You may be surprised to learn that 99% of apples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue. The average potato has more pesticides by weight than any other food. Celery, grapes, and strawberries often have more than 13 pesticides on their skins. Neonicotinoid pesticides have replaced older more neurotoxic pesticides in Europe and the U.S. over the last decade, but Europe is restricting their use significantly due to concerns about children’s brain development and the collapse of honeybee populations. Europe is also restricting use of diphenylamine (DPA), an antioxidant which is commonly used on apples and pears to keep the skins looking nice, until the pesticide industry can prove it is safe. Europe operates under the “precautionary principle” where chemicals cannot be used in food or cosmetics unless they are proven safe. The U.S. has many fewer restrictions and chemicals can be used until harm is proven.

Europe also has stringent restrictions on pesticides in baby food allowing no more than 0.01 parts per million of any pesticides. U.S. baby foods, especially applesauce, apple juice, and peaches, exceed that limit.

Some foods have pesticides on the skin but are still safe to eat. Bananas can have heavy doses of pesticide on the skin, but the fruit itself is OK. Most thick skinned fruits are safe.

However, all is not lost. There are many safe fruits and vegetables that we can recommend. The Clean Fifteen is a list of foods that have minimal or no pesticide residues. The clean fifteen fruits and vegetables for 2014 are: avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes. A few others at the bottom of the pesticide residue list (i.e. they are safer) include: bananas, watermelon, honeydew melons, oranges, squash, broccoli, and raspberries.

We can also advise our patients of safe ways to get the fruits and vegetables they like. If they can afford it, buy organic produce from local farmers markets or grocery stores, particularly for the foods in the top half of the EWG list. If they cannot afford or cannot find organic choices, soak the produce in cool water for 10 minutes, then rinse. This will reduce but not eliminate pesticide residues on the foods they eat.

For more information on pesticides in foods, please see the Environmental Working Group website at www.ewg.org. There you can review the 48 foods tested for 2014 (based on 32,000 samples taken by the USDA and FDA).

To learn more about the precautionary principal, please see the WHO Europe report at: http://www.euro.who.int/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/91173/E83079.pdf.

Jim Cotter, MD

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