QUESTION: “Dear Dr. Neal, is buying organic fruits and vegetables worth it? If I can't afford the price, what's the best way to minimize my exposure to possibly harmful chemicals? Thanks.”
Prices of Organic Foods are Generally High
Is the price of organic food worth the cost?
I just happened to be discussing this topic with my students. I proceeded to scare them by mentioning a concept known as “The Circle of Poison.”
Don’t worry. I’ll be sure to mention this here and scare all of you readers and listeners as well. Before I get to that, I have to discuss a bit of background.
Buckle your seatbelt! Here we go…
Conventional Produce and Pesticides
One of the concerns with consuming produce that is grown conventionally (meaning not organically) is exposure to pesticides. There have been associations between long-term pesticide exposure and certain diseases like cancer. Most health agencies recommend that we should limit our exposure to certain pesticides.
The Pesticide Approval Process
The Environmental Protection Agency is tasked with approving the safety of pesticides and determining how much exposure is considered safe. The EPA can ban the use of pesticides after they are determined to be harmful to our health and/or the environment. If a pesticide is approved for use, the Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture take it from there and are responsible for making sure that these guidelines are being followed by produce growers.
Sadly, this process isn’t always followed. There are many reasons why this happens so I won’t go into detail about that here. Needless to say, without very strict regulation and enforcement, potentially harmful chemicals or higher-than-approved levels of these chemicals can become a problem.
“The Dirty Dozen” of Pesticides
According to a study conducted at the University of Washington, those that consumed mostly organic produce had lower levels of pesticide residues in their urine (which is a way to help determine pesticide exposure). Therefore, it is possible that consuming organic foods–produce in particular–may help reduce exposure to pesticides.
Every year, a separate organization called the Environmental Working Group creates their list of 12 produce items that contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. They affectionately call this “The Dirty Dozen.”
I must mention that what I’m sharing is specific to the United States. Each country has their own set of standards. In Europe, for example, many of the pesticides that are approved in the U.S. are banned there.
Here’s what’s particularly scary for U.S. citizens: there are companies that still manufacture chemicals that are banned for use on U.S. soil.
You may be thinking, “That’s not so scary.” That’s because that’s not the scary part.
These U.S. produced chemicals are sold and shipped to other countries for use on their farms where they grow produce and livestock. We then purchase the very same foods that are being grown on these farms where they used the banned chemicals we sold them, and import them into the U.S. From there, they end up on our grocery store shelves for our consumption. This is what’s known as “The Circle of Poison.”
Which Foods Should I Buy Organic?
Something we need to consider is how frequently the foods are consumed and in what quantities.
For example, kale is found on this list of the “Dirty Dozen,” meaning it typically contains lots of pesticide residues. So if you eat kale fairly regularly year-round, then I would suggest you purchase organically grown kale. On the other hand, if you hardly ever eat kale, then it may not be a big deal to purchase a variety that is conventionally grown.
Think about those foods that you consume quite often and consider switching to purchasing a certified organic version if you can.
Without further ado, here is the Environmental Working Group’s list of foods for 2019 with the highest pesticide residues:
Which Foods Are Not Worth Buying Organically?
Luckily, the Environmental Working Group also publishes what they call, “The Clean 15.” These are foods that contain the fewest amounts of pesticide residues.
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melon
You may have noticed that many of the Clean Fifteen are foods that have thick peels or peels that are not edible. You can purchase conventionally grown foods with inedible or thick peels if you want to save some money and still lower your risk of pesticide exposure.
These lists only include fruits and vegetables — no animal products. What we know is that as we move up the biological chain (from fruits and vegetables to animal products), the potential for pesticide exposure increases. This is due to something called biomagnification.
Therefore, as often as possible, whenever I purchase animal products like meat, poultry, eggs, or dairy, I buy organic to help reduce my exposure.
How Many People Are Affected by Pesticides?
Are any health consequences from being exposed to too many of these chemicals?
It’s hard to know exactly how many individuals are exposed to pesticides at any given time. As I mentioned before, if someone eats mostly organically grown food, they probably have fewer pesticide residues in their body when compared with someone who eats food that is more conventionally grown.
For example, imagine there were 2 versions of you: one in this universe and an alternate “Bizarro World” version.
Let’s say the version of you in this universe is all about eating organically grown everything… fruits, vegetables, animal products, grains, everything. However, the Bizarro World version of you ate only conventionally grown foods.
What we would probably discover is that the Bizarro World version of you (the version that didn’t eat organic foods) would have higher levels of detectable pesticide residues.
Avoiding and Testing for Pesticides
Unfortunately, there’s no way to avoid ALL pesticides. Even if you were perfect and made sure to purchase all organic everything, you would still be exposed to pesticides. That’s because they are often used not just in agriculture, but as bug sprays and rodenticides in our homes and offices.
And how do scientists test for pesticide exposure? There are a few ways to do this, but the most common is by testing a person’s urine.
How Much Pesticide Exposure is Too Much Exposure?
Unfortunately, we don’t really have an answer.
Various US governmental agencies have created guidelines for certain chemicals and have established thresholds. However, these thresholds are based on animal studies. Additionally, certain pesticides are more harmful in the short-term than others. Others are less harmful in the short-term, but may be a problem over years and years of exposure.
Therefore, there isn’t a clear recommendation for all pesticides across the board. We don’t know exactly what level of pesticide exposure will lead to cancer, for example. Again, part of the reason for this is because most studies linking pesticide exposure to diseases were performed in animals, not humans. Most scientists appear to agree that we probably want to limit pesticide exposure in younger children and women that are pregnant. The risk for complications due to pesticides seems to be highest in these groups, specifically.
Is it Possible To Tell If You Have Been Exposed to Too Many Pesticides?
Yes, but I should mention that overexposure usually happens in those that work in the farming or agriculture industries. Pesticide poisoning is not very common in those outside of these industries and even if it does happen, a doctor may not suspect that pesticide exposure is to blame. This is because the signs and symptoms of pesticide poisoning aren’t very telling. A person may experience gastrointestinal distress, or come in with a respiratory infection, or even pink eye. All of these conditions could be caused by so many things besides pesticides.
From the data I have seen, there are only 2 known deaths due to overexposure to pesticides. Even so, the scientists couldn’t be sure if it was really the pesticides that caused the patients’ deaths or a combination of other factors like their age and health history.
It’s a good idea to reduce your pesticide exposure as much as possible. One way to do this is to consider buying organic or locally-grown foods.
Why locally grown? Well, in theory, if the food came from somewhere local, then the growers didn’t need to try and preserve it as long. Hopefully they picked it and got it to you in a relatively short period of time. This reduces the need for pesticide use.
If you aren’t able to purchase organically-grown foods all the time, when beginning your meal prep, rinse and scrub the fruits and vegetables – especially those with thin peels or skins – under cool, running water. Researchers have found that water and friction are pretty darn effective at removing most pesticides on our produce. But, please know, you do NOT need to do the same when preparing meat, fish, and poultry. Instead, again, try and purchase certified organic. This will hopefully help reduce your exposure significantly, as well.