High in nutrients, antioxidants, and vitamins, fruits and vegetables have long been the undisputed center of a healthful diet. Yet today's consumer must decide between purchasing conventional produce grown using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, or ante up for organics that are free of chemicals but can cost up to 50 percent more. Conventionally grown produce retains residual chemicals that humans then ingest, which may be of particular concern for pregnant women and young children. But farm workers bear the brunt of these chemicals.
"The people most exposed to pesticides are those who work with them, apply them, and go into the fields to either weed or do other types of work," says Richard Fenske, a professor in the School of Public Health and Community Medicine at the University of Washington. The FDA allows a wide range of chemicals to be used and does not require that these be revealed on store signs. Imported fruits and vegetables also pose a problem. Although consumer-interest groups have lobbied for country-of-origin labeling, there's currently no law requiring it -- which means conventional produce could come from anywhere and may not be subject to the same standards as fruits and vegetables grown domestically.
Despite pesticide scares, there is no free pass from eating your fruits and veggies. As Fenske says, whether they are conventional or organic, "produce is very nutritious, and we should all be eating fruits and vegetables." There are, however, times when buying organic is important. If you're pregnant, breast-feeding, or have children under the age of 2, try to purchase organics. Although the science isn't exact, it's believed that fetuses and young children are most vulnerable to toxins in food. Not only do children eat more food per pound of body weight than adults do, but their bodies are still developing.
According to Fenske, the biggest concern with pesticides is that they can cause long-term damage to the brain and nervous system in children, but after the age of 2 and especially for adults, they aren't a big public-health issue. That said, it's still unclear just how residual pesticides might affect adults. It is a good idea to wash conventional and organic produce with care. The FDA reports that water is sufficient for removing bacteria and chemicals.
Despite the popularity of produce washes, a number of university studies have shown that these are not much more effective than water. Be sure not to use commercial dishwashing liquids to clean produce, because they are safety-tested only for use on dishes. Peel any conventional produce (including outer layers of lettuces and cabbages) to reduce the chances of ingesting pesticide residue.
Eat certified organic produce whenever you can. By purchasing organic, you're not only keeping pesticide residue out of your body, you're keeping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides out of waterways and telling producers that you care about the way your food is grown. If you can't afford to purchase all organic produce, invest in fruits and vegetables whose conventional counterparts are most likely to contain pesticide residue.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG; ewg.org) maintains a list of the conventional produce that is most and least likely to contain pesticide residue (see our Produce Primer below; visit foodnews.org for a complete list). According to the EWG, families can reduce their food-borne pesticide consumption as much as 90 percent just by staying away from the worst pesticide offenders. At the same time, avoid poor-quality organic produce -- fruits and vegetables that are past their prime or have been damaged in transit -- because they may be contaminated with bacteria.
In addition to choosing organic produce, eat seasonally and locally. Skip strawberries in January; wait until they're in season in your area. The ultimate example of this is growing your own produce, provided you have a garden with good, rich soil that's free of contaminants.
If you're not a gardener, consider shopping at your local farmers' market, or join an organic Community Supported Agriculture farm co-op: You buy a seasonal share in a farm and receive a percentage of the food the farmer grows, usually delivered weekly in a package that can contain some nice surprises, depending on what has been harvested recently. Visit localharvest.org to find participating farms near you.
Below are conventionally raised fruits and vegetables most and least likely to contain pesticide residue.
Most Likely (In Order)
Sweet bell peppers
Least Likely (In Order)
Sweet corn (frozen)
Sweet peas (frozen)