Friday, January 28, 2011

Pesticide & herbicide residues in food - what to do

According to the Environmental Working Group, people can greatly reduce their exposure to pesticides by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the cleanest ones. Eating organic produce avoids these problems, but is usually more expensive. Even if you generally rely on organic food, you may eat conventionally grown foods in take-out or in restaurants. Here is the 2010 list of foods with highest pesticide residues, based on testing by the US Department of Agriculture and the FDA. The list reflects measurable pesticide residues after a food is washed and peeled.
The Dirty Dozen:
*Celery – with no protective skin it is hard to wash off the 64 pesticides found in residues on this vegetable.
*Peaches – conventional orchards use multiple sprays - 62 pesticides have been found on peaches.
*Strawberries – 59 pesticides found. If you buy out of season, they may come from countries with less regulation of pesticide use.
*Apples – 42 pesticides found. Peeling an apple removes many beneficial nutrients, and still there is residue.
*Blueberries – 52 pesticides found. This fruit is new on the list in 2010, possibly due to it popularity and intensive cultivation.
*Nectarines – 33 pesticides found.
*Bell peppers – 49 pesticides found.
*Spinach – 48 pesticides found.
*Kale – generally considered resistant to pests, but high pesticide residues were found in 2010. (Note – it is easy to grow your own organic kale almost year round in our climate.)
*Cherries – 42 pesticides found. Cherries grown in US had more pesticide residue than imported.
*Potatoes – 37 pesticides found.
*Grapes – only imported grapes made the ‘dirty dozen ‘ list in 2010. Wine can also harbor many pesticides.
Salad greens, carrots, and pears have been on the ‘dirty dozen’ list in recent years; when possible, look for organic varieties.

Organic Foods –If you don’t want to eat foods on the ‘dirty dozen’ list, and are able to pay more for organic varieties, what are the benefits? Organic agriculture is better for the environment, avoiding the problems of monoculture. The ocean, rivers and lakes are not contaminated with chemicals and high nitrogen fertilizers that promote the rapid growth of algae, reduce oxygen levels and create ‘dead zones’ in oceans and lakes. The soil is treated with healthier fertilizers and crops are rotated to enrich nitrogen retention. You will probably benefit from greater amounts of beneficial plant compounds that the plant makes to fight off insects, fungi, viruses and bacteria. Farm workers are not exposed to dangerous chemicals, which have resulted in high pesticide blood levels and serious health problems. You and your family will also have lower levels of pesticides and herbicides in your body. The role of such chemicals in disease promotion is under study, and is controversial. With a rapidly growing population the world needs more food, and its production probably requires a mix of industrial and organic agriculture.
This leads us to the question of choosing safer, ‘cleaner’ conventional foods:

The Clean 15: These foods have fewer pesticide residues. They should be washed, and peeled if applicable:
onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, asparagus (fewer pests/diseases ergo fewer chemicals used), sweet peas, kiwis, cabbage, eggplant, papaya, watermelon, broccoli, tomato (used to be on the ‘dirty dozen ‘ list, but is no more), sweet potato.

Note that the grains and beans used as fill-up foods by most of humanity are not on this list. Unless they are grown organically, they also have chemical residues. Corn and soybeans are increasingly genetically modified to be ‘Roundup ready’ , with a potential problem with ‘super-weeds’ needing more Roundup (glyphosate ) spray. What will happen to super-weeds and the results of increased use of Roundup is yet to be known.

Global food prices have currently reached a record high, because of food shortages. This has recently caused riots in several North African and Middle Eastern countries. At such a time, it may seem elitist to be concerned with chemical residues in food. However, the problems of industrial agriculture, climate change (droughts and floods impeding food production) and population growth are interrelated. These and other crises facing humanity are daunting. Among the many proposed solutions are several that seem extremely important to this writer: limiting population growth with voluntary and accessible family planning, the spread of regional and sustainable food systems, and working to diminish global warming. Think globally, act locally
Sadja Greenwood MD, MPH Back issues on this blog

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