‘Dirty Dozen’: Do these fruits and veggies really have harmful amounts of pesticide?

A new report says pesticide residue is on most of your favourite fruits and vegetables — even after they’re washed — but health experts say there’s nothing to be worried about.

According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2019 “Dirty Dozen” list — a report that tests pesticide residue levels on produce — strawberries have the highest levels of pesticides, followed by spinach and kale.

“We were surprised that more than 92 per cent of kale samples had two or more pesticide residues detected, and some samples contained as many as 18 different residues,” Dr. Olga Naidenko, EWG’s senior science advisor for children’s environmental health, told Global News.

The report, released on Wednesday, used data from the United States Department of Agriculture to analyze which fruits and veggies are the most and least contaminated. This is the first time kale has appeared on the “dirty” list since 2009 as it hasn’t been included in USDA’s produce tests in recent years.

Naidenko said the produce samples were tested for pesticides after they were cleaned.

“This means the produce has been thoroughly washed and, when applicable, peeled,” Naidenko said. “After these preparations, pesticide residues are still detected on many of the fruits and veggies.”

Other fruit that was listed as having higher levels of pesticide residue include nectarines, apples, grapes and peaches, ranked fourth to seventh, respectively. (Full list here.)

Food that EWG ranked on their “Clean 15” list of lower-residue foods include avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions and papayas.

Are pesticides really that harmful for you?

Despite the report, Erin MacGregor, a Toronto-based registered dietitian and co-founder of How to Eat, says that Canadians should not be worried about pesticide residue on their foods.

“A list like the Dirty Dozen makes it seems like we have something to be concerned about, when we don’t necessarily have anything to be concerned about at all,” MacGregor said to Global News.

“We actually have a very stringent regulatory system in Canada, which states there’s a very conservative amount of pesticide residue allowed to be on fruit and vegetables that Canadians buy in the grocery store.”

MacGregor says this means produce has to pass government safety standards, which determine how potentially harmful a pesticide may be. “[Regulators] look at what level of residue would cause harm — if we were to ingest it — and then they set a residue limit that falls far, far below that,” she explained.

Pierre Petelle, the president and CEO of CropLife Canada, says that pesticides are a necessary part of farming. He says fruits — especially smaller ones like strawberries — are susceptible to a number of insect infestations and diseases that makes them unusable.

“If you rely on [only] nature to grow crops, you would consistently waste endless amounts of food,” he told Global News.

“We compete with lots of different organisms and insects for the same crops, and so farmers need to protect them. It’s a simple as that. [Farmers] try to make sure they only use [pesticides] when and where they need them, but they’re no doubt an essential part of fruit and vegetable production.”

Is organic better for you?

One of the recommendations made by EWG is that consumers buy organic versions of produce found on their Dirty Dozen list whenever possible.

“When organic versions are unavailable or not affordable, EWG advises consumers to continue eating fresh produce, even if conventionally grown,” they said in the report’s press release.

While some people prefer eating organic fruits and veg, MacGregor says they’re not always free of pesticide.

“Pesticides are allowed to be used in organically grown produce as well; they simply cannot be synthetic [pesticides], they have to be naturally-derived,” she said.

Washing your food

What consumers should do if they’re concerned with pesticide residue is thoroughly wash produce under cool tap water, MacGregor says.

Washing is also an important step in preventing food poisoning as bacteria can live on the skin of fruits and vegetables.

In December, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a report that found more than 17 per cent of avocados had listeria monocytogenes on the skin. Even though you would never eat an avocado’s skin, the FDA noted this foodborne pathogen can be transferred by a knife.

Other produce, like lettuce and tomatoes, should always be washed, too. Even skinned fruits like melons and bananas should be cleaned before eating.

“Melons, in particular, are an extreme example because their flesh is the best growth medium for salmonella,” Keith Warriner, a professor of food science at the University of Guelph, previously told Global News.

Bottom line

It’s important for Canadians to eat fruit and vegetables daily as part of a balanced diet. Produce offers nutritional benefits, including a variety of vitamins and minerals, that are vital to a healthy lifestyle.

Petelle says reports like the Dirty Dozen can scare Canadians into thinking that fruits and vegetables are potentially harmful — which may cause folks to avoid them.

“If this report from the Environmental Working Group has the effect of stoking fear in people around certain eating fruit and vegetables, it’s having a very dire consequence,” he said.

“Reports from scientists are saying we need to eat more fruits and vegetables — not less — and worrying about minute traces of pesticide is not where we should be focusing our attention.”

With a file from Arti Patel and Marilissa Racco

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