published Sunday, June 19th, 2011

In search of safer food

Fresh fruits and vegetables are important components of a healthy diet. That’s not a new notion. The old saying that “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” delivered the same message as one from a contemporary nutritionist, who urges clients to eat an apple or spinach instead of fat or salt-laden prepackaged foods. Recent events like the deadly e. coli outbreak in Europe, however, suggest that eating some “healthy” foods can carry its own set of perils.

Among the other risks is the pesticide residue that contaminate many fruits and vegetables, even after they are washed and peeled. The danger from contamination can be considerable. A range of ailments and even death are possible. Given that, consumers are right to be concerned about the produce they eat.

Scientists generally agree that the pesticides associated with fresh fruits and vegetables can be linked to nervous system problems, to cancer, to hormonal problems and to IQ deficits in youngsters. The question for consumers, then, is how to balance the demonstrated health benefits of eating fresh produce against the dangers associated with pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables. There’s no simple solution.

The answer is not to give up fresh produce. The benefits are too great. The best thing to do, public health officials and advocates for a safer food chain agree, is to employ a few commonsensical practices to make the fruits and vegetables available as safe as possible.

That includes choosing products that are likely to be low in residue and purchasing organic produce if possible. Of course, the former requires effort that not everyone is willing to expend, and the latter it is often difficult to find and can be prohibitively expensive.

Protective measures include careful washing of produce with running water, and a brush to scrub hard-surfaced fruits and vegetables. The first line of defense, though, is to make wise choices when shopping for fruits and vegetables.

The Environmental Working Group can help with that task. It tests fruits and vegetables and provides useful lists of the pesticides, and the levels of them, that are present on produce in the United States. The results in many cases are eye-opening, particularly when it comes to long-time American favorites.

Apples, for example, top the EWG’s most recent “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables. The group reports that 98 percent tested positive for a pesticide and that 92 percent tested positive for two or more pesticides. Celery was second, with more than 95 percent testing positive for at least one chemical.

The remaining 10, in order of pesticide residue, were strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, domestic blueberries, lettuce and kale and collard greens (which were listed together rather than separately).

While the “Dirty Dozen” provides food for thought for those concerned about chemical exposure, it does not mean that those items should be avoided entirely. Indeed, the EWG, the Agriculture Department and public officials suggest the opposite. All agree that the benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables still outweigh possible dangers from pesticides. The EWG provides guidance in that regard, too.

It provides a “Clean 15,” list of produce that is relatively low in pesticides. Used in tandem, the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15” lists can help consumers make wise choices at the supermarket and produce stands.

The “Clean 15” includes, in order, onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, domestic cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms. Though all still have some residue, they content is lower, sometimes significantly lower, than the items on “Dirty Dozen.”

Consumers who choose the five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day from the “clean” rather than the “dirty” list, the EWG says, can reduce the volume of pesticides they ingest by 92 percent. Public health officials do not dispute that calculation. That’s certainly useful information for those rightfully worried about the increasing presence of chemicals in the soil, in the air and in the bodies of the nation’s residents.

When all is said and done, consumers still must decide on their own what level of risk they are comfortable with when it comes to eating fruits and vegetables. The EWG’s lists and reviews by public and private health officials can serve as an aid. The consensus seems to be that eating an apple (or other fresh fruits and vegetables) every day is still sound advice — especially if you clean it thoroughly.

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