On Nutrition

Can we agree that pretty much everybody knows that eating more fruits and vegetables is good for us? Great. But here’s the thing … most people aren’t translating knowing into doing. An evolving array of public health messages (including “Strive for Five,” “Fruits & Veggies — More Matters,” and the current, weirdly vague, “Have A Plant”) has done nothing to nudge average fruit and vegetable intake to recommended levels. In fact, in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that produce intake remains stagnant, only 12.3% of adults meet the daily fruit recommendations (1 1/2-2 cups) and 10% meet the daily vegetable recommendations (2-3 cups).

To be fair, many people tell me that they love salads and vegetables — when other people prepare them. So time, energy and kitchen confidence are factors. But fear-based marketing about the “dangers” of nonorganic produce may also be contributing to produce avoidance. It’s that time of year when the Environmental Working Group releases its annual “Dirty Dozen” list, which is largely based simply on how many different pesticide residues are found on samples from each crop. Not the best measure if you’re truly concerned about safety.

The most recent data from the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program, which uses testing methods that can detect low levels of pesticide residues, found that in 2020 more than 99% of food samples had pesticide residues below the maximum safe level set by the Environmental Protection Agency — with 30% having no detectable residue. This is similar to previous years’ data. In spite of this, the “Dirty Dozen” conveys the false idea that “conventional” produce is unsafe to eat while glossing over the fact that no produce is free from pesticide residue, even organic produce.

Many organic growers use pesticides that are approved for organic agriculture, and trace cross contamination from conventional fields due to wind drift is common. In fact, most organic produce has detectable levels of not-approved-for-organic pesticides. (If the residue levels are low enough, they are considered “unintentional,” and the produce can still be sold as organic.) For the crops included on previous “Dirty Dozen” lists, most pesticide residues on both the conventional and organic versions are low enough to be allowed under organic rules, which EWG doesn’t mention.

To be able to “vote with your fork” is a privilege that not everyone has, and the “Dirty Dozen” list creates fears about consuming fresh produce, especially when organic versions of foods on the list are not readily available or are not affordable. A 2016 study of low-income shoppers found that when presented with five statements about organically and conventionally grown produce, the statement that mentioned EWG and listed the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels resulted in more shoppers saying they were less likely to purchase any fruits and vegetables. I’ve had some clients tell me they eat less produce because the simple act of shopping for it is more stressful thanks to the “Dirty Dozen.” It’s common to want to avoid things that make us uncomfortable or make us have to think too hard — especially when all we want to do is get our grocery shopping done and go home.

We benefit from eating more produce, period. Fruits and vegetables provide vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals that support our health generally, and in some cases may help reduce chronic disease risk. These benefits far outweigh the risk of being exposed to trace amounts of pesticide residue that are far below the upper safety limits.