For years, along with the dog-eared crayon drawings and the adopted magnets from long-forgotten local businesses, I had an old and worn magazine clipping on my fridge that listed the “dirty dozen.” This was not a reference to the Lee Marvin film of the same name, no, this was a list of some of the most pesticide-laden, conventionally grown fruits and vegetables available. Essentially the things you should avoid unless grown organically or clearly without chemicals: things like apples, strawberries, celery and bell peppers. The presumption was that if you ate these items with any regularity you were effectively pouring a bottle of Round Up down your throat. And, as was evidenced by trips to other people’s kitchens, I know I was not alone (neurotic maybe, but not alone).
So for years I avoided these conventionally grown items as much as humanly possible and veered toward the “clean” produce and the organic options thinking that I was doing myself, and my family, a huge favor that would pay off in the long run with a clean bill of health for years to come. But last year came a study from the University of California, Davis that claimed that swapping organics for conventional produce wouldn’t make people any healthier. The authors of the study stated, “Our findings do not indicate that substituting organic forms of the ‘Dirty Dozen’ commodities for conventional forms will lead to any measurable consumer health benefit.” Now, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit health advocacy organization, are somewhat backing up the claims made last year by the Davis researchers and stating in their annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce that we should be somewhat concerned about the pesticide levels in fruits and veggies, but not so concerned that we avoid them. Huh?
This guide, which has long been a sort of benchmark for safe produce consumption, is using US Department of Agriculture database to arrive at these conclusions. The general conclusion was, while there were “trace” amounts of pesticide residue found in things like conventionally grown apples and grapes, it was not enough to cause concern. It is true that nearly all produce (even organically grown!) contains some level of pesticide residue, but it is exceedingly difficult to view these government standards as anything but exceptionally lenient. The EWG is still advising consumers to purchase organic fruits and veggies when available, but they refrain from putting the emphasis on it, as they did in years past when they claimed consumers could reduce pesticide exposure by 80 percent if they avoided conventionally grown products on the “dirty dozen” list. Now their claims have been sufficiently watered down.
What to think? To be clear, while a single apple may not hold enough pesticide or fertilizer residue to cause immediate harm, it is the cumulative effect of eating conventional produce day after day that is the cause for concern. Can you trust government standards for food safety? Do you avoid nearly everything on the “dirty dozen” list? Are there conventionally grown produce items that you are not all that concerned about?