Before you take another bite out of that organic apple, here’s something to sink your teeth into. The word “organic” might not be able to live up to your expectations. Experts warn that tossing aside produce from your diet because of perceived pesticide exposure isn’t a good idea and can affect your health.
“The worst thing consumers can do is to reduce their consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains due to their concerns regarding pesticide residues,” said Carl Winter, Ph.D., with the University of California, Davis Food Science and Technology Department.
Winter has published several research studies with other scientists demonstrating no difference in potential health risks to consumers who eat conventional produce compared to those who eat organic produce.
Winter has been critical of lists like Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen list that gives conventional produce like spinach and kale a bad rap for having too many pesticides. The lists are based on test results from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Winter argues that government pesticide monitoring on produce focuses primarily on the percentages of samples containing pesticide residues and the numbers of pesticides identified on the samples instead of the potency of chemicals found that can be considered dangerous for human consumption.
According to Winter, there are three critical components to assess the risk of dietary pesticides.
- The amounts of residues found.
- The toxicity of the pesticides.
- The number of food items consumed.
“The EWG methodology addresses NONE of these components and therefore does not provide any scientifically-defensible evidence of the risks posed by pesticides in foods,” said Winter.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sets the levels of pesticide residues allowed on foods. In Winter’s most recent research, he found that tolerance levels are set far lower than safety concerns with pesticide residues. In another publication, he concluded that typical daily consumption is often at least one million times lower than levels that don’t cause noticeable effects in lab animal tests.
For organic farmers, the first line of defense against pests must be prevention. Organic farmers are required to maintain healthy soil, rotate crops, and use enemy insects to fight off pests. If those efforts fail and organic farmers face losing a big crop, they may use pesticides.
What? Organic farmers use pesticides? Yes, they do, natural ones and synthetic ones. Some can even farm plants that were started on conventional soil pumped full of fumigants and pesticides. Wait now, before you give up on organics, it’s good to know what exactly is on the food you’re eating.
Organic farmers may use synthetic pesticides when there is no other natural substitute that can target a vulnerable plant. The Electronic Code of Federal Regulations website has a list of approved and prohibited synthetic and natural substances for organic farmers. Copper sulfate, a synthetic pesticide, is on the approved list for organic farming. The USDA determined it safe for human health. Although copper can be dangerous if it accumulates in the body, remember, it’s the amount and potency you’re exposed to and how much you ingest that matters.
“Our typical exposure to both conventional and organically-approved pesticides in food is well below levels of concern,” said Winter. “Risk assessments for both conventional and organic produce indicate that the potential health risks to consumers are infinitesimal.”
If you’re avoiding produce altogether because you can’t afford organic and are concerned about pesticide exposure, Winter suggests considering the health benefits gained by consuming any type of produce, even if it’s conventional. “Decreasing cancer risk and the risk of heart disease, far outweigh the infinitesimal risks posed by pesticide residues,” Winters said.
If you wish to speak with your healthcare provider about the risks and benefits of eating conventional or organic produce, be sure to check their license by utilizing the California Department of Consumer Affairs’ search tool at search.dca.ca.gov.