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Produce and Pesticide Residue

Farmers use pesticides on many conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. The EPA sets limits on how much pesticide residue can remain on food. It’s a complex process that’s not easy to understand, incorporating variables such as the toxicity of the pesticide and how much of the food people generally eat. At the end, each of the 9,700 pesticides (at last count, in 1996) receives a number called a “tolerance.”

The EPA, FDA, and USDA all play a role in ensuring pesticides on our food don’t exceed the tolerances. In 1999, 40% of U.S. produce tested by the government contained pesticide residue. About 1% of domestically produced and 3% of the imported food had levels that violated standards.

While those numbers might seem reassuring, skeptics point out that no one could possibly test all the food grown or imported into the U.S. Even 1% of the total produce in the U.S. is a huge amount, Gillman points out.

And although pesticide tolerances are assumed to be safe, these chemicals are by their very nature toxic, and haven’t been studied directly in people.

According to Minowa, the individual safety profiles of pesticides don’t take into consideration any hazard from their combined effects. “Take a box of [cereal] off the shelf, and you can find residues from 32 pesticides,” Minowa says. “Each one is within its tolerance, but what’s the effect of those chemicals acting in combination in our bodies?”

According to FDA data analyzed by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, the following fruits and vegetables tend to contain the highest levels of pesticide residue:

  • Peaches
  • Apples
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Imported grapes
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

The foods with the least pesticide residues were:

  • Avocados
  • Frozen sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Mangos
  • Asparagus
  • Frozen peas
  • Bananas
  • Cabbage
  • Broccoli
  • Papayas

You can reduce your exposure to pesticides by buying organic for the high-pesticide items. Conventionally grown produce should be fine for those on the low-residue list, according to EWG.

Whether it’s organic or conventional, you should take steps to reduce contamination of fresh food by pesticide or bacteria:

  • Always wash fresh produce thoroughly.
  • Peeling produce reduces pesticide residue and bacteria, although it also can remove valuable nutrients.

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