Fast Take! The Dirty Dozen: Wash, Rinse, Eat, and Repeat

From the unseasonably warm weather, to the Washington Wizards actually having a chance at the championship, to that dollar I found the other day, March has been full of surprises. But even more of a surprise is that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has released the "Dirty Dozen" early this year. The Dirty Dozen lists 12 fruits and vegetables that, according to the EWG, have the “highest pesticide loads,” but we discussed the issues at play last year with A (Half) Dozen Reasons to Avoid the Dirty Dozen.

This year, the same issues apply. But we wanted to dig a little deeper and figure out the reasons for the report and its effects on consumers.

So, Why Does the Dirty Dozen Keep Coming Out?

Great question! I would assume it's because the EWG believes that the presence of pesticides on fruits and vegetables makes them potentially toxic. There is a bit of a flaw with this logic, and I’ll explain. The presence of a substance in itself doesn't make it toxic. If that were the case, the multivitamin I took this morning would be considered dangerous because of its iron, and the green smoothie I drank would be a death sentence due to its oxalic acid. But the reason I’m still alive throwing shade Neil DeGrasse Tyson style writing this post is because the dose makes the poison.

In extremely high doses, both iron and oxalic acid (a compound naturally found in many vegetables such as spinach, sorrel, and Brussels sprouts), can cause death, but to accomplish this, you would have to consume extremely high amounts. Iron overdoses occur after consuming 200 mg (the recommended daily intake is 11 to 45 mg, depending on age and sex), and you’re looking at about 10 pounds of spinach a day to see negative effects from oxalic acid.

Here’s the thing: The dose makes the poison, not the mere presence of it. The reality is that the amount of pesticides on fruits and vegetables is so small that it has to be measured in parts per billion. One of the smallest units of measurement, parts per billion—as the name suggests—is one part per 1 billion parts. This is the equivalent of 1 drop (1 ml) of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool, or one grain of sugar mixed in with one billion grains of salt, or three seconds out of one century! This is why a child would have to eat 1,508 strawberries in one day before there would be any negative impact from pesticide residue.

We’ve said this time and time and time again, but pesticide residue levels are tightly regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service confirming that overall pesticide chemical residues found on foods are at levels below the tolerances established by the EPA and do not pose a safety concern.

So the next time you think the presence of something makes it toxic, ask yourself exactly how much you would have to consume for you to see any negative effect. Even something as innocuous as water is still toxic if you consume enough.

How Do the EWG’s Dirty Dozen Affect Consumers?

Remember the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away”? It used to be that eating fruit and vegetables was a “no-brainer” to help maintain health and daily nutrition intake. But the EWG’s messaging is making it a lot more complex than it really should be.

Research has shown that inaccurate reports about pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables (and the “superiority” of organic versus conventionally grown produce) can have a negative impact on whether people consume the daily recommended amount of fruits and vegetables.

People who are told that organic is healthier and better for them may lack access or enough money to purchase organic produce. According to a study led by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future (CLF) at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, dietary messages where people are made to believe organic fruits and vegetables are healthier can lead to unhealthy consequences.

The study found that many people thought organic was an important factor in whether a particular food item was healthy, and that information about organic foods may compete with other healthy eating messages. In addition, some participants associated negative health outcomes with consuming non-organic foods. “People’s conceptions of healthy eating are very complex, and this study shows that organic can play an important role even when people don’t have access or the means to purchase organic food,” says Sarah Rodman, MPH, lead author and a CLF-Lerner Fellow.

Putting It All Together

Listen, we get it. It’s hard enough to maintain a healthy lifestyle without the daily addition of inaccurate and unscientific reports on pesticide residues. But when it comes to eating enough fruits and vegetables, the most important thing you can do is eat enough (that’s about five servings) every day, regardless of whether they’re organic or conventionally produced. So go out there and enjoy those strawberries!

This blog post includes contributions from Kamilah Guiden.

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