My family's health is one of my most important priorities. And if I’m being honest, the most direct way to positively impact my family’s health is through food.
If I continually allow my children to eat processed foods with harmful ingredients such as artificial flavorings, food dyes, and high fructose corn syrup, they will experience trouble with their health. On the other hand, if I intentionally provide my family with real food, that’s going to make their bodies happy, and I’ll know that I’ve done my best to take care of them.
So I put my family on a real food diet, cut out processed foods, and added lots of healthy, whole foods to my family meals. But then, I was confronted with more questions. Should I buy organic produce? Is it really different from conventional produce? What are pesticides and will they negatively impact my family? What if I can’t afford all organic produce, what should I do then?
Just when I felt like I figured out how to eat healthy, unprocessed foods, I read this astonishing fact, “It only takes one serving of conventional green beans per day for a small child to be at risk of chronic disease.” Of course I feed my son green beans, they’re healthy! And yet, I’m putting him at risk of chronic disease? I know that organic produce doesn’t have pesticides, but I can’t afford that. I don’t even know if my grocery store carries organic green beans. What do I do?
Okay, so here’s the deal. I did a ton of research. I used Consumer Report’s amazing analysis to find out which fruits and veggies are safe in their regular, conventional (and budget-saving) form, and what produce is just too risky to be feeding our families. For those types, it’s best to shop organic or choose a different option.
In this post you’ll find answers to:
What are pesticides? Why are they harmful?
What can I do to avoid pesticides?
How do I choose produce at the store?
What’s the difference between EWG’s dirty dozen and Real Food Diet’s produce buying guide?
What are pesticides?
Pesticides help manage pests or modify a plant in an attempt to protect the crop from loss. Pesticides can be used as a replacement for traditional farming practices, such as crop rotation, for convenience.
Over 700 million pounds of pesticides are used each year. That’s a lot of pesticides being sprayed! But where are they being used? Pesticides are used on the crops themselves, but also on seeds and soil. The field is not the only place pesticides can be found. In fact, on some fruits and vegetables, one-third to one-half of pesticide residues are from pesticides applied in storage to target insects, increase shelf life, inhibit mold, or prevent sprouting.
Why are pesticides harmful?
Modern agriculture treats pesticides like they can fix any problem. The question is, are pesticides harmful? Here are five ways pesticides are harmful to you and your environment.
1. Pesticides are toxic
There are different varieties of pesticides. One variety, called organophosphates is readily acknowledged as toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency (the government body that regulates pesticides in the United States). Originally created prior to World War II as a nerve gas, they were developed into insecticides for their similar effect on insects. While organophosphates are not allowed on organic farms, conventional produce often contains traces.
Unfortunately, organophosphate metabolites can even be found in the urine of children who eat conventional produce. One study found that children with these metabolites were more likely to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Health Disorder (ADHD).
2. Pesticides cause cancer
About 40 chemicals registered with the Environmental Protection Agency are known, probable, or possible carcinogens (cancer-causing substances). These 40 chemicals are used in multiple pesticides, meaning even more pesticide products are known to or likely cause cancer.
And while it may be ignored, it’s becoming common knowledge that exposure to pesticides can significantly increase your risk of cancer.
3. Pesticides create chronic disease
Pesticides lurk inside our bodies and create disease. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has found 29 different pesticide metabolites (residue) present in the most Americans.
The effect of these pesticides on our health are only partially known, however we already know that exposure to these chemicals are linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma! In children, pesticides may create health complications including neurodevelopmental or behavioral problems, birth defects, asthma, and cancer.
4. Pesticides hurt rural ecosystems
Pesticides contaminate the rural ecosystem and pesticide residue can be found in the air, water, and rain at higher levels near farms. We can see the harmful effects of pesticides even more clearly in rural areas and in the lives of the people who live there. Testing has shown that people who live in agricultural areas have higher levels of pesticide metabolites in their urine. As you can imagine, farmers and farmworkers who are exposed to pesticides on a regular basis have an even higher risk of developing chronic disease from pesticide exposure.
5. Pesticides are harmful to wildlife
In addition to farmers, farmworkers, and people like you and me, wildlife is at risk as well.
- Turtles: The most widely used soil fumigant (a pesticide that produces gas or vapor intended to destroy pests) is highly toxic to turtles.
- Birds: You may be surprised to hear that more than 72 million birds die each year from pesticide poisoning.
- Honeybees: Honeybees are an essential part of a healthy food supply system — they pollinate more than 100 commercially grown crops, yet they are dying in frightening numbers. The most concerning pesticide for honeybees, neonicotinoids, are absorbed in every tissue of the plant and honeybees are exposed to this insecticide through the plant's nectar and pollen.
How can I avoid pesticides?
Sadly, exposure to pesticides is extremely common. Pesticide residues cover most of the produce at the grocery store. Thankfully, it is possible to avoid these pesticide residues, and in turn, the risk of chronic diseases and cancers.
There are two primary main ways to reduce your exposure to pesticide residue found on produce.
1. Eat organic
The first is to eat organic. Studies have shown that people who eat organic fruits and vegetables reduce their exposure to pesticide residue. Consumer Reports tested a variety of organic produce, all of which came back showing low chance of pesticide exposure.
The easiest way to avoid pesticide exposure is to simply eat organic. But the reality is, eating organic is not always an option. Sometimes organic varieties of produce are not available to the consumer. Or as many can relate, purchasing only organic produce is too expensive.
If purchasing all organic produce isn't an option for your budget, there is still an easy way to reduce your exposure to pesticide residue.
2. Carefully select safe produce
Not all produce varieties are equally exposed to pesticides. While one serving of conventional green beans puts you at extremely high risk of pesticide exposure, a conventional avocado has no higher risk than an organic avocado. Since it’s impossible to tell on your own, I created a produce buying guide.
The Real Food Diet’s Produce Buying Guide was made to help you carefully select safe produce at the grocery store. Some fruits and veggies are safe in their conventional form, and other produce is at too high of risk to safely feed our families. For those types, it’s best to shop organic or choose a different option.
I highly suggest you save a copy to your phone or print the buying guide to help you make informed decisions at the grocery store and lower your risk of pesticide exposure.
How do I choose produce at the grocery store?
The Real Food Diet’s Produce Buying Guide makes it easy for you to know which fruits and vegetables are safe to buy conventionally and which types of produce should always be bought organic. The produce buying guide is breaks produce into three categories of pesticide exposure risk: high risk, low risk, and varied risk.
3 categories of produce: high risk, low risk, varied risk
Based off both the frequency and toxicity of pesticide residues found, produce can be grouped together into 3 categories: those that should always be bought organic, those that can be safely bought conventionally, and those whose pesticide exposure risk depends on its country of origin.
1. High-risk produce
There are a handful of fruits and vegetables which should always be prioritized to buy organically:
- Green beans,
- Hot peppers,
- Sweet bell peppers,
- Sweet potatoes,
- Strawberries, and
It takes less than 5 servings per day for a 35 lb., child to be in danger of chronic diseases from the level of pesticides found in these fruits and vegetables. For green beans and peppers, it only takes 1 serving a day to for a small child to be on track for chronic disease.
2. Low-risk produce
The good news is that there is quite a long list of produce that can be safely bought conventionally with no additional risk of pesticide exposure than that of its organic counterpart.
Here's the long-winded list (in alphabetic order):
- Collard greens,
- Green onions,
- Sweet corn, and
It would take at least 10 servings but even upwards of 100 servings a day to consume enough pesticide residue from this list of produce to be at risk of related chronic disease, even for a small child.
3. Varied-risk produce
The last category of produce is fruits and vegetables whose pesticide exposure risk depends on its country of origin. Depending on where the produce was grown, the fruit or vegetable may be high risk or low risk for pesticide residues.
The produce included in this category are as follows.
- Snap peas,
- Summer squash,
- Cherry tomatoes, and
- Winter squash.
The buying guide includes the countries that are safe and unsafe for each type of produce. You can download the guide here.
What’s the difference between EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Real Food Diet’s Produce Buying Guide?
You may be wondering how this list differs from Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. While EWG's recommendations rely on the number of pesticides found on certain type of produce, Consumer Reports’ advice takes into account the number of residues per sample, the average level of each residue, the frequency of finding it, the serving size, and the toxicity of each pesticide.
The Consumer Reports analysis also takes into account domestically grown versus imported food and integrates both non-cancer and cancer risks. The study performed by Consumer Reports is the most thorough analysis of pesticides on produce to date, and Real Food Diet’s Produce Buying Guide is based off of their research.
The Real Food Diet’s Produce Buying Guide was made to help you carefully select safe produce at the grocery store. Save a copy to your phone or print the buying guide to help you make informed decisions at the grocery store and lower your risk of pesticide exposure.