For Your Apple a Day, Pick Organic

An apple a day keeps the doctor away. We all know eating fruits and vegetables is good for our health. But how healthy is the food we eat?

Humans aren’t the only ones with a taste for nature’s bounty. Creepy crawlers love to crunch and munch on the fruit of the earth as well.

Although living in harmony with nature’s creatures is an integral part of small-scale, organic farming, pests pose a major threat to commodity farms where bottom lines take precedence over lifelines. Despite mounting evidence linking pesticides to chronic health disorders, current practices permit pesticide residues to remain on produce in levels “low-enough to be safe for consumption.”

How safe is safe?

Pesticides control pests by interfering with their life processes. They cause harm to humans, animals and the environment simply because they are designed to do so. Because they are inherently unsafe, pesticides are subject to regulation.

Section 408 of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to set tolerances, or maximum residue limits, for pesticides on foods. (Interestingly, the same law also gives EPA authority to grant exemptions to the rule.)

EPA establishes tolerances based on the potential risks to human health. Risk assessment techniques project the effects of single chemicals in low doses. However, these projections can not predict the real-world effects of low-dose exposure to pesticides over time. In addition, since pesticides are regulated on a chemical-by-chemical basis, the combined and cumulative effects of a mixture of pesticides are not accounted for. In the absence of adequate data, “safe” levels of dangerous pesticides end up on our plates.

For example, according to the USDA Pesticide Data Program, apples contain residues of 7 known or probable carcinogens, 19 suspected hormone disruptors, 10 neurotoxins and 6 developmental or reproductive toxins with names like Thiabendazole, Diphenylamine (DPA) and Acetamiprid. Safe, red and delicious?

The Dirty Dozen & Clean 15

The most effective way to limit pesticide exposure is to eat local, organic produce. Sarasotans are lucky to have a bounty of organic choices including organic farms, farmers markets, natural food stores, conventional supermarkets and CSAs.

If buying organic is difficult or confusing, consumers looking to make conscious choices in the produce aisle can reference “The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG*). The Guide, now in its ninth year, ranks pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of more than 28,000 samples taken by the USDA and FDA. The 12 most contaminated are the Dirty Dozen. The 15 least contaminated are the Clean Fifteen. Pesticide intake can be lowered by avoiding the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables and choosing the least contaminated produce.

Although the EWG clearly states in the Guide that “eating conventionally-grown produce is far better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all,” food shoppers familiar with the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists can be proactive and limit pesticide consumption.

In a letter to EWG supporters, renowned health and wellness expert Dr. Andrew Weil wrote, “I turn to EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce – it’s referenced in my cook book True Food: Seasonal, Sustainable, Simple, Pure – to reduce my exposures to toxic chemicals. In fact, just switching from foods on the Dirty Dozen list to foods on the Clean Fifteen list can lead to a significant drop in the number of pesticides you are exposed to on a daily basis.”

Next time you reach for your daily apple, make sure it isn’t toxic, pick one that’s small-scale organic.

Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen  graphic © Environmental Working Group, Posted with permission.