Strawberries that cause nerve damage, celery that's messing with your fertility…are these what you want in your grocery cart?
Probably not, but an overabundance of pesticides in the U.S. food supply is making even healthy foods less healthy for us. According to the Pesticide Action Network, the average person eats five servings of pesticides through fruits, vegetables, and water ever day.
Fortunately, just in time for farmer's market season, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released its annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, an analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tests for pesticide residues on commonly consumed fruits and vegetables.
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First the bad news: It doesn't look like levels of pesticide residues are getting any lower, says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG. Sixty-eight percent of produce samples tested showed detectable levels of pesticides, a number that has remained relatively constant over the six years that the nonprofit as released its report. Eleven percent tested positive for more than five different pesticides.
This all shows that the Environmental Protection Agency isn't doing as much as it should to restrict pesticide use in a way that protects public health, she says. "It's like meeting a 500 mile-per-hour speed limit. They're aimed at stopping the really egregious levels of pesticides." But they aren't stopping low-level exposures to the chemicals, many of which are considered endocrine disruptors, chemicals that interfere with estrogen and testosterone in the body and, in doing so, contribute to infertility, thyroid problems, diabetes and other metabolic disorders, and certain forms of cancer.
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But you can still avoid those toxic chemicals without breaking the bank. EWG's annual guide provides information on the most heavily contaminated foods—read: the foods you should always buy organic. Take this list with you next time you head to the store.
#1: Nectarines. Every sample of imported nectarines tested positive for pesticide residues, the USDA found, and the average imported nectarine contained more pesticides by weight than any other food.
#2: Bell peppers. Eighty-eight different types of were found on all the samples of sweet bell peppers tested, the most of any vegetable. One bell pepper that was tested had 15 different pesticide residues, the highest of any single vegetable sample.
#3: Leafy greens. The most toxic class of pesticides, organophosphates are commonly used on leafy greens like kale and collard greens. "These are chemicals that were originally intended for chemical warfare," says Lunder, who adds that their use is highly restricted in agriculture. In spite of those restrictions, studies continue to find that even low-level exposure to organophosphates can seriously interfere with your hormones and lead to lower IQs among children who are exposed to them through food.
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#4: Grapes. More pesticides are used on grapes than on any other fruit. Combined, the various samples of grapes contained 64 different pesticides.
#5: Baby food. New to this year's list, baby food was tested by the USDA for the very first time. Based on EWG's analysis of the findings, USDA found high levels of those IQ-killing organophospates as well as a pesticide known to cause cancer.
In addition to those five items, EWG recommends you always buy the following 10 foods organic, due to the high levels of pesticide residues they've been found to carry: apples, celery, peaches, strawberries, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, domestic blueberries, potatoes, and green beans.
"But pesticide residues are just one part of the picture," says Lunder. Pesticides can make their way onto your dinner table in more ways than just on food, she says, such as in your water glass. Chemicals used on farms routinely wind up in municipal water supplies that aren't equipped to remove them. "The best way to ensure you're getting minimal pesticide exposure is to buy organic," she says, regardless of whether or not the produce tested positive for pesticide residues. Not only are you eating reliably residue-free food, but you're also supporting a farming system that protects your water supply both now and in the future.
Furthermore, a similar analysis of the USDA's pesticide-residue data by Pesticide Action Network has found that huge quantities of pesticides can be applied to foods that don't always wind up on the EWG's list of the most contaminated foods. For instance, sweet potatoes don't test positive for high levels of pesticide residues once they get to you, but USDA data shows that its one of the crops with the highest pesticide use per acre, which makes farming them conventionally toxic to birds, bees, and your water supply.
For EWG's full list and rankings for both the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" (the fruits and veggies with the lowest pesticide levels), visit ewg.org/foodnews.