Fruits, Vegetables and Pesticide Residue: Getting the Facts Straight

That vitamin K-rich leafy green known as kale — sometimes touted as a “superfood” because it’s even more nutrient dense than other healthy vegetables — is now the subject of troubling headlines.

Kale has joined the list of 11 other fruits and vegetables known to be “dirty” because they contain the highest amount of pesticide residues, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer watchdog group.

The EWG publishes the annual “dirty dozen” list of produce. Alongside kale, the list currently includes other fruits and vegetables that could be considered an essential part of a healthy diet. They include spinach, apples, celery, grapes, pears and cherries.

What’s the solution if you are concerned about pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables? The EWG urges to buy organic versions of these produce items.

“We were surprised kale had so many pesticides on it, but the test results were unequivocal,” states EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin in a statement. “Fruits and vegetables are an important part of everyone’s diet, and when it comes to some conventionally grown produce items, such as kale, choosing organic may be a better option.”

Most dietitians agree that going organic is a viable option, but they caution that the EWG may be unnecessarily scaring people away from eating the hallmark of plant-based diets — whole fruits and whole non-starchy vegetables. Some organic products can be more expensive than non-organic counterparts — yet another factor that may be pushing consumers away from healthy fruits and vegetables.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has deemed kale and the other fruits and vegetables on the “dirty dozen” list as safe to consume based on its own monitoring system. The USDA says its Pesticide Data Program (PDP) is the most comprehensive pesticide residue database in the U.S. It is implemented through state agriculture departments and other federal agencies.

“I don’t necessarily recommend that (dirty dozen) list,” says Lucette Talamas, registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida. “I’m not confident of the method the group uses to list the vegetables and fruits that they find have pesticides or the highest amounts. Now, the flipside is that our government, the USDA, has a pesticide data program and according to those reports, 99 percent of our produce is below the recommended levels of pesticide. So we are safe to eat our fruits and our vegetables whether they’re organic or not.”

Both Ms. Talamas and Amy Kimberlain, also a registered dietitian with Baptist Health South Florida, are concerned that the recent articles about kale making the list will keep people from consuming vital fruits and vegetables.

“We’re not even eating enough fruits and vegetables as it is,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “It’s unfortunate when you see a list like that and it becomes overwhelming or scary.”

Kale is a cruciferous vegetable like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collard greens and Brussels sprouts. It contains fiber, antioxidants, calcium, and it’s packed with vitamin K, which plays a key role in blood clotting, bone metabolism, and regulating blood calcium levels.

“Articles like that (about kale) and the dirty dozen list instill food fears in people, ” says Ms. Talamas. “We shouldn’t have a fear associated with eating non-organic kale or any fruit or vegetable.”

The dietitians recommend that consumers continue washing their fruits and vegetables before eating them. They also say that you should consider organic options if you have persisting concerns about pesticide residue.

“At the end of the day, we need to wash our fruits and vegetables and we do need to eat more of them,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “If all our produce could be organic, that would be a dream to a dietitian. But that’s not how American agriculture is currently. We have conventional fruits and vegetables and we have organic, and the good part is that now we see more affordable organic options. Whether it’s organic or not organic, get your non-starchy vegetables and your natural fruits. Get them in your diet.”

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