A study by Consumer Reports looks at the risks of pesticide residues for 48 fruits and vegetables from around the world to come up with guidelines to help consumers reduce their exposure to these toxic chemicals.
In the United States, there isn’t a legal limit on the number of different pesticides allowed on food.
Consumer Reports analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found that a third of the produce the agency tested had residues from two or more pesticides. And, while for the most part these levels fell within the Environmental Protection Agency tolerance levels, these tolerance levels are calculated for individual pesticides. The effects of these pesticide combinations are untested and unknown, said Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports’ findings
The Consumer Reports guide is based on its analysis of 12 years of data from the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program that shows the relative risk of pesticide exposure from eating 48 conventional fruits and vegetables from 14 different countries. Consumer Reports placed each produce-country combination into one of five risk categories – from very low to very high.
The risk assessment included the number of pesticide residues on each food, the frequency with which they were found, and the toxicity of the pesticides.
Consumer Reports’ analysis is based on the risk to a 3 ½-year-old child weighing 35.2 pounds. Children are especially vulnerable to the dietary risks from pesticides. Adults can use this relative risk information to make informed comparisons among produce-country combinations.
Consumer Reports analysis showed that organic produce falls into the low- or very low-risk categories when it comes to pesticide exposure, so consumers should choose organic fruits and vegetables when possible. If organic produce is too expensive or not available, there are often low-risk conventional options equivalent to organic.
Here are the fruits and vegetables consumers should always choose organic:
- Green beans
- Sweet bell peppers
- Hot peppers
- Sweet potatoes
Consumer Reports' analysis found 23 very low- and low-risk conventional produce items that are O.K. to buy including: bananas, cherries, oranges, broccoli, lettuce, onions, and more. The risk guide is available on ConsumerReports.org.
The risks of pesticides
Much of what is known about the health effects of pesticides comes from studies of farmworkers, who work with these chemicals regularly. Studies have linked long-term pesticide exposure in this group to increased risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease; prostate, ovarian, and other cancers; depression; and respiratory problems, Consumer Reports said. Many agricultural chemicals are known or are suspected carcinogens or endocrine disruptors that can block or mimic the action of hormones.
Farmworkers may be at greatest risk from pesticide exposure, but the health risks to children are also significant. Because a child’s metabolism is different than an adult’s, toxins can remain longer in a child’s body, where they can do more damage. Pesticide exposure can affect children’s development at many stages, starting in the womb. And, their risk is concentrated because they eat more food relative to their body weight than adults. Even small amounts of pesticides may alter a child’s brain chemistry during critical stages of development.
Consumer Reports said that while the risks of pesticides are real, the health benefits of fruits and vegetables are, too. When possible, it’s best to choose organic or low-risk conventional produce. However, eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables – ideally five or more servings a day – is the primary goal, even if it’s a type that falls into Consumer Reports’ very high-risk category.
The article, “Eat the Peach, Not the Pesticide: A Shopper’s Guide,” is featured in the May 2015 issue of Consumer Reports and at ConsumerReports.org, libraries, newsstands, and bookstores.
The report, “Pesticide Use in Produce,” provides a look at the consequences of pesticide use for those who produce food, wildlife, and the environment.