It is more critical today to buy organic fruits and vegetables than it was 50+ years ago. There are many different insecticides and pesticides in use today. Certain fruits and vegetables are more prone to the use of these chemical additives, both during the growing stage and during shipping (post-harvest). Therefore, it’s important to know which produce to buy organic and those that can be purchased conventionally-grown if money is limited.
Last week I addressed the common food additives and food chemicals (“poisons”) that are added to our foods and should be avoided. Most of these are used and found in processed foods. Today I’m focusing on the chemical additives put on the produce before they’re even purchased, either by the food manufacturers, the restaurants, or the consumer.
It was in 2004 when I first became aware of the fruits and vegetables containing the highest concentration of herbicides and pesticides and I chose to avoid them as much as possible. The list of the most contaminated at that time consisted of: Peaches, Strawberries, Apples, Spinach, Nectarines, Celery, Pears, Cherries, Potatoes, Bell Peppers, Red Raspberries, and Imported Grapes.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides. They just released (June 1st) their updated list for 2010. I highly recommend bookmarking their site and review it annually. Print out the list and keep in handy while grocery shopping.
They refer to the list of the 12 worst as the “dirty dozen” and the 15 best picks as the “clean fifteen” list.
Seven of the 12 most contaminated foods are fruits: Peaches, strawberries, apples, domestic blueberries, nectarines, cherries, and imported grapes.
Fruits least likely to test positive for pesticide residues: avocados, pineapples, mangoes, kiwi, domestic cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, and honeydew.
Vegetables with the highest pesticide residue: Celery, sweet bell peppers, spinach, kale, collard greens, and potatoes.
Vegetables least likely to test positive for pesticides: onions, sweet corn, sweet peas, asparagus, cabbage, eggplant, and sweet potatoes.
Will washing and peeling my fruits and vegetables help?
Here is the answer to that question from the EWG’s website: “The data used to create the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides is from produce tested as it is typically eaten. This means washed and, when applicable, peeled. (Wow! I did not know this before today! 😯 ) For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed. Because all produce has been thoroughly cleaned before analysis, washing a fruit or vegetable would not change its rank in the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide (i.e. washing a conventional apple will not make it is less contaminated).”
Many insecticides and pesticides are taken up by the plant as a whole and are not found only on the peel or skin. The EWG has not evaluated various fruit and vegetable washes for efficacy or potentially toxicity. Therefore, the EWG states “it is unlikely that even these products would be more effective than thorough washing at lowering pesticide levels.”
Regardless of where your favorite fruits and vegetables fall on the EWG’s list, all produce, especially conventionally-grown produce, should be washed before being prepared and eaten. If done sufficiently, washing will remove some, though not all, of the pesticide residues a food contains. It can make your food healthier but will not eradicate the contamination.
Also even organic produce can have bacteria and can get contaminated during the shipping and storing of produce before it arrives in the stores and purchased by the consumer.
Suggested guidelines for washing produce:
1. Use a glass bowl or your sink for cleaning. The stuff you’re removing will leave behind residues of its own. Glass bowls and sinks are much easier to clean than plastic. Most pesticides are oil-based, so you’ll need some soap for the job. There are fruit and vegetables washes specifically formulated for this purpose available, I use a product called Veggie Wash. You can also use all-natural, vegetable based soaps or distilled white vinegar. Don’t use synthetic dish liquids or other similar products.
2. Fill the bowl with lukewarm to warm to even semi-hot water. The temperature you choose will depend on the fragility of the produce you’re cleaning and whether or not you intend to cook it. Generally, the warmer the water, the more effective the cleaning will be, so don’t be afraid to add a little heat if the produce you’re cleaning can withstand it. Add a teaspoon of soap or veggie wash, agitate the water until it gets sudsy, add the produce, and soak it for up to 15 minutes. Use less time for thin-skinned produce like berries and more for hard skinned foods like celery.
3. After soaking, use a good vegetable brush to scrub produce that will tolerate it as aggressively as possible. Some foods will tolerate this scrubbing more than others. Hard skinned foods like peppers and apples, for example, are easier to wash than soft-skinned foods like strawberries or peaches. These and other delicate produce items like greens will have to get by with just the soaking and some agitation in the water because they won’t be able to tolerate scrubbing without damage. Shown here is the fruit and veggie brush I have.
4. Rinse the produce thoroughly in the warmest water possible, and place it on a rack or other surface to dry. For faster results use a salad spinner. Scrub clean whatever container you used. You’ve just washed off some nasty stuff, and a good cleaning gets it out of your kitchen for good. As much produce as I wash I finally got a good quality salad spinner at Amazon.
5. Any produce that can be peeled should be peeled prior to use. This will maximize the extent of contaminants removed. But even food you’re planning to peel, from bananas to eggplants, should be washed first because you can easily transfer pesticide residues from the peel or skin to the edible portions inside during peeling if washing is skipped.
Each of us can make healthier, safer food choices today by purchasing produce low in pesticides and by buying fruits and vegetables organically grown as often as possible. With this small step we can help protect our and our families’ health from the harmful effects of pesticides both now and in the future and enhance our environment at the same time.
To your good health,