Sept. 15, 2022 – Many brands of fruit leathers, a popular children’s snack, have detectable levels of pesticides, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization aiming to improve human health and the environment. Many dried fruit snacks also have detectable pesticide levels.
It released the results today in a report, "Fruit leather: A snack sometimes chock full of pesticides and sugar."
The Environmental Working Group’s bottom line: “Fresh fruit is always going to be better,” says Sydney Evans, a science analyst for the group and a report co-author. To minimize pesticide exposure, dried fruit snacks are better than fruit leathers, she says, and organic is better than non-organic or conventional products.
But others blasted the report. “This fear mongering needs to stop,” says Teresa Thorne, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, a nonprofit organization representing organic and conventional farmers growing fruits and vegetables. The levels found, she says, are well below the standards set as acceptable.
The Environmental Working Group asked an independent lab to test 37 samples of organic and non-organic fruit leathers from 10 brands, as well as 30 samples of dried fruits, another popular take-along snack, from 16 brands. (Fruit leathers are made by dehydrating fruit puree into a sheet that’s shiny with a leather-like texture.)
None of the samples tested were above federally set tolerance levels for pesticides, Evans says. But the group believes those tolerance levels are too high.
Detectable levels of pesticides were found in all 26 samples of the non-organic (conventional) fruit leathers tested and in half of the non-organic samples of dried fruit, according to the Environmental Working Group, whose funding sources include organic food companies.
But some of the organic products evaluated also had pesticide levels similar to or higher than those found in conventional products. For instance, Trader Joe’s Organic Apple Strawberry Fruit Wrap had 247 parts per billion (ppb) of pesticide concentration, while Bob Snail Apple-Strawberry Stripe, a conventional product, had 106 ppb.
One sample of Stretch Island Raspberry Fruit Leather contained 17 pesticides, the most of all the leathers tested. When the researchers looked at the total amount of pesticides, also known as total pesticide concentration, samples from That’s It, Stretch Island, and Trader Joe’s had the highest total concentration, on average.
The most commonly found pesticides were fungicides pyrimethanil, fludioxonil, and thiabendazole, and the insecticide acetamiprid. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, hormone disruption, reproductive and nervous system effects, and birth defects, among other problems.
“For me, the takeaway is [that] fresh fruit is always going to be better” if given a choice between that, the fruit leathers, and dried fruit, Evans says. If that’s not an option, she recommends choosing dried fruit snacks over the fruit leathers. The Environmental Working Group evaluation of 30 dried fruit products found conventionally grown dried cranberries, dates, figs, mangoes, and prunes had non-detectable levels of pesticides, while the highest levels were found on raisins and dried strawberries, cherries, and apples.
Fruit strips with the highest levels of pesticides often had apples as the first ingredient, Evans says. Apples are No. 5 on the 2022 “Dirty Dozen” list, the annual ranking of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides produced by the group.
The process of dehydrating fruit to make the fruit leathers also “drastically increases the concentration of natural sugar the snack contains,” the group says, resulting in far more sugar than a similar-size serving of fresh fruit would have. It also recommends avoiding fruit leathers and dried fruit with added sugar and additives such as flavor enhancers, food coloring, and corn syrup.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets tolerance levels for pesticide residues on foods. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program is a national pesticide residue monitoring program.
“Nothing they found is surprising,” says Kaci Buhl, an associate professor and director of the Pesticide Safety Education Program at Oregon State University Extension, Corvallis, who reviewed the report for WebMD.
The findings also don’t support advice to avoid the fruit leathers altogether, she says.
“Parents should not be concerned as long as fruit leathers are consumed in moderation as part of a varied and balanced diet,” Buhl says. (Organic produce is also grown with pesticides, she notes.)
Others pointed out what they saw as discrepancies in the calculations. For instance, a That’s It Blueberry Fruit Bar, which is 35 grams (1.2 ounces), was found to have a total pesticide concentration of 3,541 ppb, while its Mini Blueberry Fruit Bar, at 20 grams (0.7 ounces), with the same ingredients, had a total pesticide concentration of 89.
The fruit leather and dried fruit snacks are especially handy when those who live a distance from a food market run out of fresh fruit, Buhl says.
“We need to stop scaring people away from the foods they enjoy, especially when they are healthy foods like fruits and vegetables,” Thorne says.
On the alliance’s consumer information site, its pesticide calculator estimates that a child could eat 340 servings a day of apple with no ill effects of pesticides “even if the apple has the highest pesticide residue recorded for apple by the USDA.”
WebMD reached out to companies for comment. Stretch Island did not respond, and That’s It declined to comment on the findings.