The Environmental Working Group out of the US has released its annual list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables found to contain the most and least pesticides. The 2018 report reveals that nearly 70 percent of produce tested was contaminated with pesticide residue and for the second year running, strawberries, spinach and nectarines were the worst offenders.
A single sample of strawberries was found to have at least 20 different pesticides present while spinach samples had, on average 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. The "Dirty Dozen" also included apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers. The "Clean Fifteen" – with the least amount of pesticide residue – featured avocados, corn, pineapples, cabbage, onions, frozen peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower and broccoli.
But should these stats be cause for concern? The World Health Organisation says that pesticides are potentially toxic to humans and may induce adverse health effects including cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems. There’s also evidence that high exposure to pesticides in early childhood have been linked to paediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioural problems.
“Even low levels of pesticide exposure can be harmful to infants, babies and young children, so when possible, parents and caregivers should take steps to lower children’s exposures to pesticides while still feeding them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables,” Dr. Philip Landrigan, a paediatrician at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York, previously told USA Today.
However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) spokesman Lorraine Haase says the results of the EWG report can’t be applied in Australia or New Zealand.
“Mostly because different countries use different agricultural chemicals depending on the environment,” Lorraine told Women's Health.
And despite how alarming the EWG report seems, Lorraine says that very small amounts of pesticide residues don’t necessarily mean there’s a risk to public health and safety.
“In Australia we have maximum residue limits for agricultural chemicals. These limits have a safety factor built in. In other words the limit is set well below what is considered safe. FSANZ and other bodies also undertake routine testing for residues on foods. When these surveys are done, we more often than not find very little – tiny – amounts of residue or none at all. Any exceedance is reported to enforcement agencies, although again, it’s important to note that an exceedance doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a health or safety concern.”
It’s also worth noting that the methodology used by the organisation behind these lists has been criticised for lacking scientific credibility. A study published in the Journal of Toxicology analysed the report and found that of the most commonly detected pesticides found on the "Dirty Dozen", the amounts were so low that they “pose negligible risks to consumers”. Plus, eating organic forms of the fruits and vegetables featured didn't significantly reduce those negligible risks.
Monica Amarelo, EWG’s director of communications, previously told Business Insider that, “The Shopper’s Guide is not and has never claimed to be a risk assessment. It’s a straightforward ranking of which fruits and vegetables tested by the USDA had the most pesticides.”
The bottom line?
"Given the benefits [of eating fruits and vegetables] and the extremely low risk of tiny amounts of residue on food, consumers should not be discouraged from eating fruits and vegetables," Lorraine says.
Kate Di Prima, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that Australian consumers can be sure that the food they're eating is safe but if they're still worried, they can give their produce a wash to reduce any potential remaining residue.
"A lot of the "clean fifteen" are the ones that you remove the skin, avocado, corn, etc – you're remove the top coating before you eat it," Kate told Women's Health. "So fruits and vegetables that you're eating the skins of, just make sure you wash them really, really well, dry them well and make sure that the skin isn't damaged or pierced."