Fruit and Vegetable Consumption: A Casualty Of Fear-Mongering?

Building healthy eating patterns is core to reducing risk and managing diet-related chronic diseases. As such, supporting healthy food and beverage behaviors among Americans is a key public health tenet.

While it is easy for us to encourage people to eat healthier, show them MyPlate, and give them tips for consuming each of the food groups in the recommended amounts, achieving healthy eating patterns is a much more complicated construct for individuals, families, and the population as a whole. Food is at the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and eating is fraught with emotion. Dietary behaviors are a product of what the person choosing and consuming the food perceives and feels (consciously and subconsciously), and it can be very difficult to change eating habits that have been established over time.

Sadly, a staggering number of Americans underconsume fruits and vegetables. Specifically, 90% do not eat recommended amounts of vegetables and 80% do not consume enough fruit – and this deficit has been pervasive across population groups and persistent over time. With consumers being exposed to recently published lists that propogate misinformation about pesticide use in fruit and vegetable production, we were compelled to understand current knowledge and perceptions of pesticide use and how these may affect produce consumption in our most recent IFIC Spotlight Survey.

Pesticide Misunderstanding Jeopardizes Fruit & Vegetable Consumption Habits

I invite everyone to read our latest IFIC Spotlight Survey: Public Perceptions of Pesticides & Produce Consumption report and to independently and critically think through the consequences of sensational messaging related to pesticides on diet quality – particularly fruit and vegetable intake.

Here is my take on the data: The majority of Americans consider how food is grown when making food and beverage decisions. Food safety and pesticide use are top concerns. For those concerned about pesticide use, nearly 60% believe consuming foods grown with pesticides is bad for their health; 36% believe that the pesticides used today are more toxic than ever; and 32% say that the amount of pesticides used to grow foods is higher than ever before. Additionally, 35% of these folks perceive pesticides to be bad for the environment.

It seems safe to say that the use of pesticides, and their effect on the human body and environment, is an emotionally charged issue bound to affect eating behaviors. So, it is not surprising that nearly 60% of consumers say that they have decided not to consume or purchase certain foods because of pesticides. Of those avoiding specific foods due to pesticide concerns, 71% and 59%, respectively, report that they have avoided vegetables and fruits. Further, only three in 10 Americans believe that the health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables that are grown with pesticides outweigh the risks. I can tell you – for those of us who have dedicated our careers to helping improve Americans’ nutrition and health, and specifically to close the gap between fruit and vegetable recommendations and consumption, this is a big problem.

It’s Time For A New & More Truthful Conversation

Despite the data points on fruit and vegetable consumption and avoidance, I remain optimistic that our Spotlight Survey shows that public confidence on this issue resides in the right hands. The most trusted sources on the safety of using pesticides to grow food are US government agencies (44%), health professionals (40%), and farmers (32%).

This makes sense because we know that pesticides are regulated by several government agencies worldwide. While both organic and conventional produce are grown with the use of pesticides that leave small amounts of residue, according to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service, pesticide residues found on foods are at levels below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As such, both EPA and USDA confirm that pesticide residues occurring within acceptable limits do not pose a health or safety concern. ​

Yet, this is clearly in contrast to consumer belief and sentiment. It’s time to act! The bottom line is we want consumers to build healthy dietary patterns, complete with fruits and vegetables. If fear-mongering related to pesticide use is allowed to dominate the discussion, consumption efforts will continue to be undermined. Instead, let’s get real with consumers to help achieve long-elusive food and nutrient intake recommendations and public health nutrition goals.

Our new conversation must be rooted in evidence-based information. This can be delivered by trusted government agencies, trained health professionals, including registered dietitians, and committed farmers in a way that quells consumer concerns and encourages healthy choices and diet quality.

As we start to set the record straight, consider keeping these key points in the forefront despite the fear-mongering:

  • There are numerous well-documented health benefits related to eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.
  • Consuming a variety of fruits and vegetables, in all forms (fresh, frozen, canned, dried, and 100% juice) and from all production methods (conventional and organic), is safe, nutritious, and an important component to achieving a healthy dietary pattern and maintaining good health.
  • Produce needs protecting from pests so that we can have enough to keep individuals and families healthy.
  • Rinsing fruits and vegetables with cool water before eating is a great practice.
  • Choose a variety of fruits and vegetables to meet personal preferences, food traditions, and cultural foodways in the forms that are easily accessible, stored, prepped and/or prepared.