Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help lower calorie intake, reduce risks for heart disease, obesity and Type 2 diabetes, and protect against certain cancers.
With all these benefits, why do some consumers choose to avoid produce? Approximately three-quarters of people in the US don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables.
Keith Ayoob notes that a lot of factors could explain the shortfall, including fear. Media stories about topics such as GMOs and pesticides may convince some consumers that it’s not safe to eat certain fruits and vegetables. There’s no question that negative news about produce can affect consumer choices. One survey found that among low-income shoppers, those who heard messages about pesticide residue on produce were less likely to purchase any type of fruits and vegetables. 1
One high-profile report intended to drive consumer choices is the Environment Working Group (EWG) Dirty Dozen report listing of fruits and vegetables it claims have the highest levels of pesticide and residues. The EWG is an American non-profit environmental organization that specializes in alleged research and advocacy in a number of areas, including toxic chemicals.
Each year since 1991, the USDA has been publishing the results from a large-scale pesticide residue monitoring program called the PDP. Each year, a different set of crops is chosen and samples are purchased from regular stores and tested. Year after year, the results of those studies confirm the safety of the food supply. Year after year the EWG misrepresents the data to say otherwise.2
The EWG performs their own analysis which research experts have rejected as utterly anti-scientific. 3 EWG generates an incorrect ‘grade’ for the crops and posts it as part of their “Shopper’s Guide’, and on their notorious “Dirty Dozen List’.
But while the Dirty Dozen may attract attention form concerned consumers, it doesn’t use the same rigorous methods for measuring risk that food scientists typically do. A report by the World Health Organization and United Nations found that the Dirty Dozen list results in consumer perceptions about fruits and vegetables that goes against dietary advice to eat more of them. 2
This year EWG lists strawberries at #1 (the dirtiest of the dirty), apples as #4, peaches as #5 and celery as #9. These four commodities were included on every list since 2007.
Comparing these lists against the USDA’s actual annual report provides some interesting facts.
The USDA produces the most comprehensive pesticide residue database in the country. These data enable the EPA to assess dietary exposure, particularly among people with infants and children, and to provide guidance to governmental agencies. Over the 20 years the USDA has tested residues, about 90 percent of crops and commodities have tested below—often significantly below—EPA tolerance levels. The USDA has consistently emphasized that based on PDP data, consumers can feel confident about eating a diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables.1
A very important point—the USDA actually analyzes the pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables. The EWG merely relies on the USDA and scores risk simply by whether pesticide residues can be measured. By emphasizing fear over facts, it reinforces irrational perceptions.
How well can scientists measure these days? Imagine one dime in a stack reaching from the Earth to the Moon and half-way back. This is equivalent to one part in 10 to the 19th power, a detectability level for one atom of cesium in the presence of argon reported by Oak Ridge National laboratory. 4
This is one example of how these days scientists can find any thing in anything and this leads to a problem. The minute that something is found in food, in someone’s blood, etc., some folks get very concerned and start creating a lot of fuss. Fodder for EWG.
The EPA requires a large battery of studies to measure the effect and safety of a new pesticide. First, it determines the highest dosage at which there is no observable adverse effect. That dosage is then divided by uncertainty factors of up to 1,000 to calculate the allowable daily intake, and by an additional uncertainty factor of up to 10 to calculate the reference dose, or maximum acceptable dose. 1
Research published in the peer reviewed Journal of Toxicology using USDA data found levels of pesticides in 90 percent of cases from the 2010 Dirty Dozen that were at least 1,000 times lower than the chronic reference dose which is the concentration of a chemical a person could be exposed to on a daily basis throughout life before risking harm. 5
What’s the response from EWG? Go organic! However, here’s the kicker. Just because food is organic doesn’t mean it is without pesticide. There is along list (1700 products) of the materials allowed on organic products published by the Organic Material Review Institute (OMRI). The pesticides on this list are definitely real pesticides (they kill pests) and so have to be registered for use by the EPA like any other pesticide. 6
So with all the suggestion about buying organic, folks should be aware that just because it’s organic, it doesn’t mean the food is pesticide free. One-fourth of all fruits and vegetables marketed as organic had significant residues of synthetic pesticides on them. Further, nearly a third of the time when the synthetic residues were found on organic produce, they were present at a concentration even higher than the average levels found on conventional fruits and vegetables.7
Yet EWG says you can go for organic foods which are safer. Whether this has anything to do with the donors of this group is something for the reader to contemplate. EWG is funded by more than 20 companies, including Stonyfield, Earthbound Farm, Organic Valley, Nature’s Path and Annie’s. All five just happen to be organic food companies with estimated combined annual sales of more than $7 billion. An interesting coincidence? 8
Most of the media pick up on the EWG organic sales pitch and parrot EWG’s remarks without doing any checking on their own.
Organic food will never be at the top of a residue list simply because organic food ends up being a small proportion of random samples. However, in modern times there is one area where organic is high enough to be a meaningful part of samples: baby food. There is a lot of organic baby food. So organic baby food as part of random samples has been creeping up. Dr. Steve Savage showed that 11.5% of baby pear food samples were organic. Of the 67 samples, there were 101 pesticide residues detected. Even worse, only 33 of them were for an ‘organically approved’ pesticide. So not only did organic baby food have pesticide residues, most of them were not even organic pesticides.9
Though EWG claims otherwise, the take home message from science and health is the same again this year; eat fruits and vegetables.
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