fruits and vegetables

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Does it really matter if we buy organic versus non-organic foods? What is the real difference between the two? Well, you might be surprised. There are over 400 pesticides currently licensed to be used on U.S. foods, but our exposure to thousands of others is “tolerated.”

“Pesticides” is a general term that the government and other agencies use to include insecticides, fungicides, rodenticides, insect repellants, weed killers, antimicrobials, and swimming pool chemicals designed to prevent, destroy, repel, or reduce pests of any sort. Every year, between 1.5 and 2.5 billion pounds of pesticides and chemicals are dumped on our crops, forests, lawns, and fields, yet many of those used in and on foods have never been tested for human safety. If you go out for dinner and order a salad, a meat or fish main course, and a dessert, the chances are high that you have consumed several types of pesticides. If you have a glass of wine or several glasses of water with your meal, you probably just ingested several more pesticides. The “cocktail of chemicals” you ate occurs on a daily basis.

The World Health Organization (WHO), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. FDA, and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) all play a role in ensuring pesticides in our food do not exceed specified levels assumed to be safe. But, what is “safe” and how do we know that these levels are not actually dangerous? The true is—we don’t know. Statistics about how much residue can be found on produce are difficult to obtain and studies show traces of 29 different pesticides in the average American’s body.

The individual safety of pesticides is one aspect of concern, but what has not been tested (and raises serious questions of safety) are the health effects from the combined, synergistic effects of the ingestion of multiple pesticides by consumers. At present, the Office of Pesticide Programs at the EPA does not count multiple exposures to the same pesticide when it calculates permitted levels. If it did, the totals could, at times, exceed 500% of the allowed daily intake. These “chemical cocktails” have been life-threatening and deadly in animal studies but, for obvious reasons, they have not been tested in humans.

So what can the average person do to protect themselves? One way is to use The Dirty Dozen™ as a guide when you buy produce. It is a list of foods most commonly sprayed with pesticides and so these are the items that are best bought as “organic” produce. The Clean 15™ is a list of the foods with the lowest pesticide residues so they can be bought as either organic or non-organic products. Both of these lists are compiled after the produce was washed using high-power pressure water systems that most of us do not have at our disposal so that needs to be taken into consideration.

These lists are compiled each year by the Environmental Working Group (2015) and include the following:

The Dirty Dozen™

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Nectarines
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Potatoes

The Clean 15™

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Avocados
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Kiwis
  • Cantaloupe (domestic)
  • Papayas
  • Cauliflower
  • Honeydews
  • Broccoli

How do you select healthy food for yourself and your family? We recommend choosing organic, sustainably harvested, humanely-raised food (especially when consuming the Dirty Dozen™) whenever possible and washing your fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating – even if they are organic. To remove pesticides from produce, fill a large bowl with 4 parts water to 1 part plain white vinegar. Soak the item in the mixture for 20 minutes and then rinse well with clean water and pat dry.

If you would like to learn much more about this topic, check out our Certificate in Food, Nutrition, and Health or Certificate in Nutrition, Chronic Disease, and Health Promotion.