Each year, almost a billion pounds—or nearly three pounds per person—of pesticides are sprayed across the U.S. Before herbicides and pesticides were introduced 57 years ago, 37% of our crops were being lost to pest damage. Today, despite the pervasiveness of pesticide use, pests are destroying MORE than 37% of our crops.

And it’s not just in the U.S. We import heavily sprayed foods from countries that use chemicals the United States banned long ago. While pesticides have not had any significant effect on crop loss, they have definitely had an effect on our health. I think pesticide exposure levels in our food, water and environment are cause for concern today, but I am even more concerned about the effect they will have on future generations if we don’t start making some changes in the way we grow—and buy—our foods.

In the last article, I looked at which fruits and vegetables are the most pesticide-laden and how you can make the best choices when buying fresh fruits and vegetables. Today, I’m going to discuss some of the effects these choices have on our health and look at other issues worth considering, including whether to buy food from abroad.

The Effect of Pesticides on our Health

Pesticides are toxins that can affect our nervous systems and damage our reproductive systems. (Not surprisingly, chemicals designed to prevent pests from reproducing can affect our ability to reproduce as well.) Some pesticides are more harmful to us than others and the extent of their effect on our health depends on which pesticides we are exposed to, in what amounts and at what frequency. Some, like organophosphates and carbamates, affect our nervous systems. Others disrupt our hormones and affect the endocrine system. Some are known carcinogens, while others irritate skin and eyes.

Pesticide exposure can result in both chronic and acute health concerns. Some of the chronic health concerns include shortened attention span, memory disorders and reduced coordination, early onset Parkinson’s disease, reproductive problems, hormonal disruptions and imbalance, birth defects, depression and cancer. (As far back as four decades ago, Miami University did a study on terminal cancer patients and found that in the random selection tested, they all had exceptionally high levels of pesticide residues in their liver, brain and fatty tissues.)

Some of the acute conditions pesticide exposure can trigger include blurred vision, headaches, eye problems, skin conditions, seizures, diarrhea, nausea and wheezing. Mild to moderate pesticide poisoning can even present symptoms similar to asthma, bronchitis and gastroenteritis, especially in children.

Children are particularly susceptible to these problems because of their developing body systems. CNN reported recently on new research that children across the U.S. who eat typical kid-friendly foods like frozen blueberries, fresh strawberries and celery had twice the likelihood of receiving an ADHD diagnosis. (Previous studies focused primarily on communities of farm workers and found that exposure to pesticides led to behavioral and cognitive problems in children.)

Researchers analyzed the urine of over 1,000 children and found that the kids with above average levels of one common pesticide byproduct, malathion, had double the chance of receiving an ADHD diagnosis. Since pesticides are designed to have toxic effects on the nervous systems in order to kill the pests, researchers concluded it is not a stretch to imagine that these chemicals can have an effect on the nervous systems and brain chemicals of children exposed to them.

We are all born with some pesticide exposure in our systems passed to us in utero. We add to that through our daily food and water choices and our environmental exposure. Some of us are more susceptible because of our genetic makeup or higher in utero exposure levels, but all of us can manage our pesticide exposure by making better choices.

I think our pesticide exposure through food, water and environment is so pervasive today that we should all try to minimize our exposure. If you have kids, are pregnant, have a compromised immune system or make lifestyle choices that you know place greater burden on your liver, it is even more important to pay attention to your food choices and avoid “the dirty dozen” most heavily pesticide-ridden produce and buy organic instead.

Buying Food From Abroad

In generations past, we ate along with the seasons, varying our diet depending on what grew at that time of year. Today, we eat much more limited diets, as many of us tend to eat from the same food groups repeatedly with little deviation. As a result, we eat our favorite fruits and vegetables year-round.

This practice not only restricts our diets and limits our exposure to the many other fruits and vegetables available each season, but it has also resulted in big business for international produce exports. The importation of fruits and vegetables raises a number of concerns about the carbon footprint of our foods, the use of pesticides illegal in the U.S. that are still being used in foreign countries and the nutritional value of food that is picked before it is fully ripe so that it can make the long journey to us before it spoils.

Though the U.S. has banned the use of some known carcinogenic chemicals in our food production process, several developing countries routinely use such chemicals in farming.

Just one example of this (and sadly there are many more) is the pesticide DBCP or Dibromochloropropane. In the late 1970s, workers at a pesticide plant in California discovered that DBCP exposure had rendered them sterile. Some companies stopped production while an investigation was undertaken, but some did not. (One company, Amvac, told its stockholders that they would continue to sell it even though it had suspected carcinogenic and mutagenic properties because a vacuum existed in the marketplace during the investigation and they hoped to take advantage of it.) After a two-year investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that DBCP does cause sterility and it was banned for use in the United States.

However, just because a chemical is banned in the U.S. does not mean there are restrictions abroad. In this case, DBCP is sold to Coast Rica, Honduras and Ecuador for use on banana plantations and then that produce is sent back to the U.S. for consumption. (Dole recently made the news with a lawsuit from banana plantation workers related to sterility from DBCP; it’s still being used in banana production today.)

One recent test indicated that bananas from Central and South America revealed 45 pesticides that are “allowable” by FDA standards as well as 25 prohibited pesticides and 37 additional poisons that the FDA does not test for. The FDA rarely refuses entry to produce or seizes any shipments, so there is little reason not to spray heavily. (One Mexican farmer stated that because Americans want blemish free produce and won’t eat items with insect marks, they spray four times as much pesticide on any produce destined for the U.S. than for any other location.)

If the FDA does test a produce sample, they remove a small section but send the rest to market while the tests are being run. So if they do in fact find excessive pesticide levels or other concerns like unknown poisons, there is little consequence because the American public has already consumed the produce by the time it is discovered.

In addition, the nutritional value of foods that travel long distances is often compromised. In order to make it to market prior to spoiling, fruits and vegetables are picked early, before they are ripe, and then sprayed to protect them from ripening too soon while still in transit. Food that is picked early before it fully ripens is not fully developed and its enzyme profile is different than that found in a mature, ripe version.

For example, unripe fruit has an insoluble form of pectin known as protopectin. But as it ripens, enzymes make the pectin soluble. In the case of fruit or vegetables from far away, they may never reach their ripe and mature nutritional state because they are sprayed to delay ripening and we consume them prior to that ever occurring or because the chemicals sprayed to prevent them from ripening on their journey effectively prevent them from ever reaching full mature development.

Buying organic reduces our pesticide exposure in foods we eat, but it also reduces the pesticide exposure in our environment. Pesticides remain in the soil—often for many years—affecting future crops, sometimes even generations later. In addition, spraying results in airborne chemicals that drift over homes, gardens and schools creating health concerns for many people—especially children and those living in rural farm areas.

There are so many great reasons to opt for organic produce, but it is also important to support our local farms and farming communities, as there are greenhouse gases emitted from airfreight to consider.  I’ve heard the argument that buying air freighted out-of-season produce is the equivalent to driving a Hummer.

So how do you decide between an organic apple from New Zealand or a conventional pesticide-laden product from a neighboring farm?

Local versus Organic

This is not an easy question to answer, and one you will have to decide for yourself based on your commitment to local agriculture, your concern about carbon footprints and your tolerance for agrichemicals in your food. I try to support local farming to the extent possible and will choose local produce, even if it’s not organic, whenever possible. (Especially if I can talk to the farmer directly at the farm stand or the farmer’s market and ask about how the produce is grown.)

The one exception to this is “the dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables discussed in the prior article, in which case the harms of the heavy pesticides outweigh any other considerations for me as I have developing children. So when buying those fruits and vegetables (and a few others toward the high end of the list that we eat regularly) organic is always my first priority.

Of course, when possible, getting something local AND organic is always ideal and I try to seek that. But in today’s world where time and money are always a consideration, that is not always possible. In the next newsletter, I’m going to look at how to make the best choices when you can’t get fresh produce and you need to buy frozen or canned versions as substitutes. (You’d be surprised to know how much restaurant food, even at nice restaurants, comes from a can!)


To your wellness and health: your true wealth!


Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com

Photo Source: Wikipedia


Getting the right info on buying the best fruits and vegetables is as important as ever, so I want to answer some of the questions people ask me regularly about making healthy fruit and vegetable choices, such as: when is it worth splurging on organic if my budget is tight? Is frozen better than canned? Do I need to wash everything, even if it has a skin? And, how do I decide between local and organic?

I’m going to begin by telling you which fruits and vegetables are the safest, and which are the most pesticide-ridden, so that you can start making better choices immediately.

The Dirty Dozen

Several years ago, Consumer Reports magazine assessed the pesticide residue levels in fruits and vegetables based on data from the USDA, with foods prepared as they would be in a typical home.

The score was a composite that was based on how many samples contained pesticides, the average amount and the toxicity of the particular pesticides that were found. In this report, a result over 100 indicated cause for concern. Peaches domestically grown in North America came in at 4,848. Winter squash (domestically grown) came in at 1,706. Domestic apples landed at 550. Domestic pears, spinach, grapes, celery, green beans, grapes from Chile and spinach from Mexico all fell in the 250-450 range.

With anything over 100 being cause for concern, this study illustrates why people are so worried about pesticides in our produce supply and why it is worth spending more for organic.

Organic foods will rarely be completely pesticide-free; they still have some trace levels of pesticides due to contaminants that remain in the soil or are airborne. However, studies have shown that people who consume conventional fruits and vegetables have pesticide residues in their urine and those who consume organic fruits and vegetables do not.

In today’s economy, money can be tight and we are all looking to stretch wherever we can; but spending a little more to buy organic can be a wise investment in your health. If you cannot afford to buy everything organic, but you still want to make some healthier food choices, here are the 12 fruits and vegetables that are worth splurging for organic. According to the Environmental Working Group, these fruits and vegetables contain between 47-67 pesticides per serving (which cannot be washed away).

In order (from worst to somewhat better, keeping in mind all 12 of these should be avoided to the extent possible if they are not organic), they are:

  • Celery
  • Peaches
  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Domestic blueberries
  • Nectarines
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Spinach, kale and collard greens
  • Cherries
  • Potatoes
  • Imported Grapes
  • Lettuce

If your five+ servings a day of fruits and vegetables are coming primarily from these foods, you are taking in high levels of pesticides that are linked to autoimmune disorders, cancer and ADHD. (And I suspect many other conditions that studies have not yet revealed because of lack of funding for such research.)

We can handle a little bit of pesticides from time to time, but if you are eating other foods that contain toxins or consuming a lot of fructose or drinking a lot of alcohol, your liver is already busier than it should be and it isn’t fully available to detoxify your chemical load.

If you eat from this group regularly, over time you will add significantly to your toxic load; you need to consider not only the effect of these foods, but also the effect of these foods in conjunction with the other things you are eating and doing (or not doing). Children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems need to be especially vigilant. It’s estimated you can avoid as much as 80% of your pesticide exposure by choosing organic forms of these fruits and vegetables.

The Clean 15

It may not be that helpful to assess the rest of the fruits and vegetables because your primary focus should be on avoiding non-organic forms of the produce above. But it often surprises people to know some of the cleanest, least pesticide-ridden produce.

In order, from best to not as good, but still pretty clean, they are:

  • Onions
  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Mango
  • Sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Cabbage
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe
  • Watermelon
  • Grapefruit
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Sweet onions

While we might like to eat only organic fruits and vegetables because they are healthier and often they taste better, if you are watching your pennies, there is no reason to splurge on organic forms of these.

It’s important to note that pesticide residue levels are measured after produce is washed and peeled. So no matter what you are buying, even the clean 15, you should clean your produce with a good veggie wash. You can find citrus-based veggie washes in your grocery produce aisle: water is not usually enough. I wash everything that comes into my house, even if it says it has already been washed. And peeling soft skinned fruits will help reduce pesticide levels as well.

The fruits and vegetables that do not appear on either list are just that: not the best, but not the worst. You’ll want to weigh the conventional versus organic options in light of what else you eat and your financial considerations. If you opt to buy conventional instead of organic, always look to buy produce that is as local as possible. If not at a farmer’s market, your local supermarket often has some produce from regional farms and that is always a better choice than food from far away.

Dissecting Food Labels

In addition to the above lists, you also need to be a wise consumer and read produce signs and labels carefully when purchasing fruits and vegetables. Food stores such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s have both conventional and organic options, just as your local market may, so you have to be careful about what you are buying: conventional produce from Whole Foods or your local natural foods store is no better than what’s in your local market, and it may be much more expensive.

Some large chain supermarkets (such as Hannaford here in New England) have a wide selection of organic produce that is often cheaper than specialty stores like Whole Foods. Regardless of where you buy, it’s worth reading food labels, as they will tell you the truth.

Conventional produce (grown with herbicides, fungicides, insecticides and fertilizers) will have a sticker that has a four-digit number that begins with a 4. For example, a conventional grown banana might read 4011. Because 4 digit codes have now been used up, you will begin to see stickers will four digit codes beginning with the number 3 that are also conventionally grown.

Organic produce has a five-digit code that starts with the number 9. For example, organically grown bananas might read 94011.

Genetically engineered produce (to be avoided) will have a five-digit product code that starts with the number 8, so a genetically engineered banana would read 84011. (Much produce today has been genetically modified, which won’t be apparent, but if it was specifically genetically engineered, it has to carry a label starting with 8.)

So anytime you are looking to buy organic, just check to make sure the sticker starts with a 9. Supermarket produce sections can be misleading, so double check to make sure you are buying what you really want.


To your wellness and health: your true wealth!


Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com

Photo Source: Microsoft Clip Art

© 2012 Inger Pols, Inc. Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha