Nutrition for Today: Pesticides, food and health – Florida Today

Pesticides is a dirty word. The mere mention of the word evokes fear of cancer, birth defects, and hormone disorders.

Many people are reluctant to purchase foods that have been sprayed with pesticides for fear they may cause health problems, and choose to buy only organic produce, which has not been subjected to spraying by commercial pesticides.

As frightening as the subject seems to be, the reality is much different.

Pesticides are chemicals that are used on crops to control the pests that damage them during production, storage and transportation. Pesticides increase crop yield, increasing the amount of edible food at harvest. They also improve the quality, safety and shelf life of foods.

The use of pesticides allows consumers to afford a wide variety of foods. Yet still, controversy surrounds their use.

When it comes to the issue of health, “pesticide residue” is the bottom line. Pesticide residue is the amount that remains in or on food at the time of purchase.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates pesticide residues, assuring that levels remain below established limits in order to safeguard human health. The EPA has the authority to determine which pesticides can be used, how they can be used, and how much can be used, all of which helps to assure the safety of our food supply.

Potential pesticides are subjected to more than 120 separate tests to ensure they will not present health or environmental concerns. Pesticide development, testing and EPA approval takes 8-10 years and costs manufacturers $35 million to $50 million for each product.

The legally allowable amount of pesticide residue is set at a level that includes wide safety margins. For example, a 150-pound adult would have to eat 3,000 heads of lettuce each day for the rest of his or her life to ingest the amount of a pesticide found to cause health problems in laboratory mice.

Pesticide residues naturally diminish and break down over time, and are reduced even further as produce is washed and processed prior to sale. By the time food gets to your local grocery store pesticide residues are way below legal limits. Low levels of residue may remain, even in organically-grown foods.

Experts from the National Cancer Institute have concluded that cancer risk from pesticides is minimal. They state that the great majority of cancer deaths are due to two things: tobacco use, which causes 30 percent of all cancer deaths, and diet, which is estimated to cause 40 percent of cancer deaths.

“Diet” does not include the use of chemical additives or pesticides, but rather refers to excess dietary fat consumption that increases the production of cancer-causing substances in the body, lack of fiber which flushes out potential carcinogens, and lack of other nutrients which prevent formation of and help eliminate carcinogens in the body.

Experts say the health risk from not consuming fruits and vegetables is much greater than the risk from ingesting pesticides from conventionally grown produce.

You can remove most of the residual dirt, germs and any remaining pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables by washing with water. Special soaps and washing products have not been shown to be more effective than water alone.

Dish soap and bleach are not recommended, as they can get trapped and absorbed into the pores of the produce, and can actually add residue to your food. The best way to clean your produce is to hold it under running water, rather than soaking or dunking.

Dry with a clean cloth towel or paper towel. Discard the outer layer of leafy vegetables such as lettuce or cabbage.

The decision to go organic is purely a personal one. I would neither encourage nor discourage you eat only organically grown produce.

However, consider these facts. Organic produce is more costly than conventional. Organic foods do contain pesticide residues, though at lower levels than conventionally grown. Organic produce has not been shown to be more nutritious, nor does it contain more vitamins and minerals. Mineral content is determined by soil quality. Modern farming methods and fertilization assure that optimal levels of minerals are present in all commercial crops. Vitamin content is primarily determined by the ripeness of fruits and vegetables when they are harvested.

What really matters most is that you eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, regardless of whether the produce is organically grown.

Susie Bond is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist with Health First Pro-Health & Fitness Center. Contact her at susie.bond @health-first.org.

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