When it comes to eating healthy, we’re all trying to add in more fruits and vegetables. They’re a core part of a whole food lifestyle, full of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other incredible nutrients. But the way they are grown matters.
Most corporate farms in America coat their crops with pesticides during each growing season. Manufacturers of these chemicals create them to help reduce insects and other pests so that farmers can sell as much of their produce as possible in the commercial market. While it does prevent pests from eating plants, it doesn’t help with our health.
Over 70% of common fruits and vegetables you’ll find at the grocery store have pesticide residues on them, according to the Environmental Working Group. The US still uses several pesticides that are banned in the EU. Studies show pesticide exposure is likely to interrupt hormones and other sensitive chemicals in our bodies. They also put people at higher risk for cancer and other health problems.
Being educated on the risks of pesticides is important for a healthy, wholesome diet.
Health Benefits of Avoiding Pesticides in Your Diet
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit research organization, puts out a yearly report and shopper’s guide based on their research from the previous year. This report gives details on pesticide use in our food system and what foods in your grocery store you should avoid. Not all foods are soaked in pesticides while they’re growing.
The EWG helps us to understand what we should always buy organic and which foods are safer to eat from a conventional supplier. They do this by tracking the amount of pesticide residue left on foods even after they’ve been washed or peeled.
There are a few types of foods that should be eaten organic always. They tend to have thinner skin or skin that can’t be easily peeled. This means you can’t just eliminate the outside layer of the fruit or vegetable. For these foods, pesticide-free is the safest choice. This group of foods is named the Dirty Dozen.
The Dirty Dozen
What says summer more than strawberries? These beautiful, bright red berries are full of vitamin C, manganese, folate (vitamin B9), and potassium. They’re also excellent sources of antioxidants and plant compounds that help prevent heart disease and blood sugar issues.
Unfortunately, 90% of strawberries are also covered in at least 2 types of pesticides. It’s best to head to your farmers market, farm stand, local food co-op, or Whole Foods to pick up the organic variety. Wait until they’re in season in late spring and early summer for the most delicious flavors of all!
Popeye’s favorite food spinach is loaded with nutrients your body needs. It contains vitamin K, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate (vitamin B9), manganese, magnesium, iron, and vitamin B2. Spinach is one of the veggies with the highest rates of vitamin K, which is essential for bone health. The nutrients in spinach help ward off cancer, improve digestion, and increase your eye health. Spinach is quite the superfood!
The dark side of conventional spinach is that 76% of spinach samples are covered in permethrin. This is a pesticide that’s banned in the European Union due to unsafe levels of toxicity and detrimental effects on human health. There’s also residual DDT left in the soils that a lot of spinach is grown in, so as much as 40% of these leafy greens also contain traces of this highly toxic chemical.
It’s best to buy your spinach organic, whether that’s from a conventional grocery store or your local organic suppliers.
You’ve probably noticed kale popping up everywhere. From green smoothies to kale chips, it seems like everyone is eating lots of kale. There’s a good reason for it too. Kale has an array of nutrients in it, including vitamin A, vitamin K, vitamin B6, vitamin C, calcium, potassium, copper, and manganese. It also contains loads of antioxidants to help ward off cancer and other diseases, plus a hefty dose of fiber which is important for your gut.
The kicker here is that conventional kale is also loaded with pesticides. EWG’s study from last year (2019) found that 92% of kale samples had at least 2 types of pesticide residue on it and a single sample was covered in up to 18 different kinds of pesticides! The most commonly found type of pesticide found on kale was Dacthal (DCPA). This is a chemical that has been evaluated as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and is banned in the European Union.
It’s best to prioritize organic kale when shopping, whether you get your veggies from local farmers or supermarkets. Enjoy the bounty of kale’s nutrients without the pesticide contamination.
These delicious sweet treats are packed with vitamin C, beta carotene, lutein, potassium, and loads of fiber. Nectarines are great at preventing cancer, improving your gut health, and improving your cardiovascular system.
Of course, they’re also vulnerable when pesticides are sprayed all over them. Roughly 90% of nectarines have at least 2 or more different pesticide residues on them. It’s important to buy these tasty fruits organic or at least pesticide-free. Go track down your local farmer or health food store to find some that are toxin-free (when they’re in season).
“An apple a day keeps the doctor away…” or so the saying goes. But what’s behind the idea that apples are so healthy?
For starters, they’re packed with some incredible nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin B3 (niacin), vitamin K, potassium, calcium, iron, copper, phosphorus, and magnesium. They also contain plenty of antioxidants including phytonutrients and flavonoids such as quercetin, epicatechin, phloridzin, and others.
Apples are pretty amazing, plus they’re kid-friendly and tasty too.
You should definitely buy them organic (pesticide-free), however. Over 90% of apples tested show detectable pesticide residues of at least 2 different pesticides. Choose to get your apples from farmers, health food stores, or the organic section of your grocery store. Don’t forget to buy your apple sauce organic too!
Grapes pack an antioxidant punch and they’re tasty snacks for adults and kids alike. Antioxidants include those famous polyphenols, resveratrol and quercetin. Depending on the variety, they’re also full of potassium, fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, thiamine, riboflavin, vitamin B6, copper, and manganese. They’re great for our cardiovascular systems, eyes, and for diabetics. You can’t go wrong with a bowl full of grapes.
Except you’re going to want to make sure you’re eating the grapes that are grown pesticide-free. Some reports say that there are dozens of pesticides possibly sprayed on grapes. So it’s safe to say that most conventionally grown grapes have plenty of residues on them. If you drink grape juice or wine, choose brands that practice organic growing methods.
Peaches are the ultimate early summer food. Juicy and sweet, with a taste like fresh sunshine. They contain loads of vitamin A and vitamin C. They also contain vitamin E, vitamin K, niacin, folate, iron, choline, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, zinc, and copper. Peaches are another great source of antioxidants and fiber, as well.
Of course, just like the nectarines above, they should be eaten from pesticide-free sources. Support your local farmers and small businesses, when possible.
Cherries are some of the best snack fruits for all ages. There’s a good reason to load up on them when they’re in season, too. They’re full of fiber, vitamin C, potassium, copper, manganese, magnesium, and vitamin K.
They also have plenty of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds to go around, including a high level of polyphenols. Cherrie’s nutrient profile benefits your heart health, reduces inflammation in the body (great for arthritis and gout), speeds exercise recovery, and helps you sleep better.
The conventional variety isn’t super safe, however, as over 90% of cherries test positive for pesticide residue. Choose cherries that are pesticide-free and organic from your local farmers market, health food store, or favorite gardener.
These fall favorites don’t just make the best tarts, they’re also really healthy for you. Pears contain loads of fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, potassium, copper, folate, vitamin A, and niacin. They’re also excellent sources of antioxidants, including polyphenols. They’re important for gut health, heart health, anti-inflammation responses, warding off cancer cells, lowering diabetes risk, and so much more.
As with many fruits and veggies, the nutrients are concentrated in the skin of this fruit. So you’ll definitely want to buy organic always! Check out local pear orchards, if available — or find them in the fall at farmers markets, health food stores, and the organic section of your grocery store. Support local when you can!
Your favorite fruity vegetable, the tomato is so versatile and delicious. From pasta sauces to fresh caprese, tomatoes make everything taste better. Fresh out of the garden, you can happily eat them right off the vine.
Luckily, they’re also superfoods that boost your body’s health in many ways. Their biggest claim to fame is the high amount of antioxidants they contain, specifically lycopene which helps to reduce heart disease and cancer. Tomatoes are full of insoluble fiber, great for sweeping out your gut. They’re also chock full of vitamin C, potassium, folate (vitamin B9), and vitamin K1.
Like the other foods on this list, tomatoes are also susceptible to an abundance of pesticides. Make sure you’re choosing organic or at least pesticide-free. And don’t be afraid to track down a local gardener or farmer that grows their veggies without pesticides. They’ll be the best tomatoes you’ve ever eaten, guaranteed.
Crunchy and best covered in peanut butter and raisins, celery is a big hit with many children. It’s a great on-the-go snack when you just need something crunchy and healthy to eat. Celery is high in water and low in sodium, plus it’s rich in antioxidants and polyphenols.
It contains vitamin C, beta carotene, flavonoids, potassium, folate, magnesium, and iron. It’s good for keeping your blood sugar levels stable, reducing inflammation in the body, neutralizing acid in the stomach, and feeding the friendly bacteria in the gut.
This is another food you want to be sure to eat organic. The thin skin of celery means it’s extra susceptible to pesticide residues. This is very important with celery since it’s such a common food for children. Look for solid stalks of celery at your farmers market or health food store, and don’t forget to eat the leaves – they’re full of nutrition!
Potatoes are almost everyone’s go-to carb and comfort food. They’re low in calories, creamy when cooked just right, and filling for that stick-to-your-ribs kind of meal. Lucky for us, potatoes also are a veggie and full of nutrition. (Make sure to leave the skin on for the biggest boost of great stuff – that’s where most of the nutrition is located.)
Potatoes contain fiber, plus an array of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, vitamin B6, potassium, manganese, magnesium, phosphorus, niacin, and folate. They also offer a hefty dose of antioxidants to help offset free radicals and help to prevent cancer, heart disease, and so much more. The starches in potatoes include a special type that isn’t used by the body and is instead sent down to the large intestine where it nourishes the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Potatoes help balance blood sugar and improve digestion.
Since potatoes skins are important nutritionally, it’s also important to eat your potatoes organic so you can skip the worry about pesticides. You can pick these up at most farm stands, farmers markets, or stores that sell organic foods. Potatoes keep for a pretty long time, so you should be able to find them throughout most of the year!
Baker’s Dozen: Hot Peppers
You might enjoy a sprinkling of chopped jalapeno peppers on top of your quesadillas or enchiladas. Or you might have other ways of eating hot peppers. These colorful veggies are good for you too.
The primary nutrients in hot peppers are vitamin A and vitamin C. They also include a special phytochemical called capsaicin that offers a lot of health benefits (and is the reason peppers are spicy). It’s good to note that sweet bell peppers don’t have capsaicin in them since they’re not remotely spicy.
Capsaicin prevents the growth of leukemia and breast cancer cells, improves heart health, prevents diabetes, increases metabolism, and can lower blood pressure.
With all these awesome nutrients, you want to make sure it’s packed in the cleanest skin. EWG found that hot peppers are coated with some pretty awful pesticides that are typically banned for use on food, including acephate, chlorpyrifos, and oxamyl. Skip the toxins and get these fiery snacks at your local food co-op or Whole Foods!
The “Clean Fifteen”
EWG doesn’t just report the foods with the worst amounts of pesticide residues, but they also research those with low levels of pesticide traces. Here is a list of foods that are safe to consume from a conventional grocery store. These foods either have a thick skin that protects the inside or they’re a crop that isn’t traditionally sprayed all that often. This can help you better budget your grocery bill, saving money for the foods that need to be bought organic.
These foods include…
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
The FDA and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) have less strict laws and regulations than the European Union does, so many of the pesticides that are banned in the EU are still in use in the US. This is a bit of an issue from a public health perspective. The USDA started testing for pesticide residues on foods in 1991 and tracking the results. However, the testing isn’t as regular as it probably should be. Foods are only tested every few years, which doesn’t adequately capture what’s going on from a toxicology angle.
EWG is working to get the USDA to take pesticide levels more seriously, especially since the combination of two or more can have even more toxic effects in the human body than just one alone. Greater regulations are needed to help protect the American people from potentially carcinogenic substances.
In the meantime, vote for better food practices by choosing to support organic and pesticide-free farmers, gardeners, and markets. Be empowered in how you shop and share that information with your friends and family.
An IAWP Graduate’s Thoughts on Pesticides in Food
“I believe we should do our best to make sure to buy organic fruits and veggies, there are so many pesticides sprayed on our food, some are proven carcinogens and for others, there’s not enough information on long term effects. What we do know is that our bodies were not made to process all these chemicals.
When it comes to food and pesticides, I generally recommend organic clean foods. You can find these at your local farmers market, grocery stores, or by growing your own. I also understand that sometimes these can be more expensive and some people’s budgets don’t allow for that. In this case, I recommend following the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “Dirty Dozen” and encourage my clients to buy at least these foods organic, for the rest I recommend washing all fruits and veggies in a vinegar and baking soda mixture.
What you need:
½ c Apple Cider Vinegar
½ full sink of lukewarm water
Fill your sink about half full with lukewarm water then sprinkle baking soda over it and mix it up. Add your veggies or fruit and make sure they are fully submerged. Then pour in apple cider vinegar and let it all soak for 15 min. Rinse under cool running water.”
–Melanie Austad, IAWP Certified Master Wellness Coach at Renovate Wellness
Tips to Avoid Pesticides in Food
One thing to keep in mind is that eating fruits and veggies with pesticides is still far better than eating no fruits and veggies just to avoid pesticides. While pesticides are far from ideal, the antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, and other nutrients found in fruits and vegetables are important for your health. Keep eating them!
However, the best situation is to try to avoid eating too many pesticides. Studies have shown that individuals eating conventional foods (covered in pesticides) often have over 40 different types of pesticide residues in their urine. After switching to organic for even just a week, the counts in their urine decreased by over 60%! Just a little extra effort can have big results when it comes to your health and the health of your family.
Here are a few tips to help you cut back on your pesticide consumption.
- Pay careful attention to the Dirty Dozen list and commit to always eating those items from organic sources.
- Feel free to eat foods from the Clean Fifteen list from any source (especially if on a strict budget). Though, of course, organic is ideal for all foods.
- Choose to support your local farmers to give back to your community and keep small businesses alive.
- Sign up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) – you’ll get weekly shares or an allotment of veggies and fruits (and other foods) that were grown by the farmer who hands them to you.
- Shop at your local farmers market for even more selection.
- Choose to eat foods when they’re in season. You’ll be more likely to find those foods organically and at the peak of their deliciousness!
- Support restaurants that buy their food from local farms, or request that they start doing so.
- In a pinch, get organic foods from your local supermarket or chain store, such as Whole Foods.
- Shop the sales and stock up on frozen organic fruits and veggies or freeze organic produce yourself.
- Don’t stress if you need to eat something that’s not organic. You’ll cause a stress response in your body that’s just as unhealthy. Your body is good at cleaning toxins out (just not every day, all day)!
- Be an example to your kids, partner, parents, friends, and neighbors (but be positive and don’t nag others about the food they eat).
- Feel empowered that you’re voting for a better agricultural system for everyone by buying organic and supporting small farmers!