The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many of us to plan our grocery store trips more carefully. On top of remaining safe we are also still working on adhering to budgets, nutritional goals, and taste bud demands. Therefore, hearing about another list shaming us into buying organic fruits and vegetables might add to anyone’s angst. But, even if not, lists that say one form of produce is safer and more nutritional than another should be avoided. Here are the top seven things to remember about eating healthy and safe foods when this year’s (or any year’s) Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists (lists that promote organic produce as being safer and healthier than conventional produce) invade your social media streams.
- There is no reason to avoid any type of produce, whether organic or not.
Both conventional and organic produce present a healthy and safe way to obtain daily nutrients. Neither is more safe or healthy than the other. This goes for any food product, from raisins to milk and beyond. Whether you choose organic or traditionally produced fruits and vegetables, the important thing is to get plenty of servings of fruits and vegetables each day and to handle all food safely to prevent foodborne illness. Remember these four steps: clean, cook, separate and chill.
- There are several regulatory steps in place to ensure that all food products in our supply chain are safe.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests that the government approval process for pesticides is somehow lax and undiscerning. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) actually takes a minimum of six years to finalize the approval and safety (to humans and the environment) of newly formulated pesticides. Only after this review process can a pesticide be approved and sold in the U.S. and abroad.
- U.S. regulatory authorities inspect and monitor both conventional and organic commodities to ensure equal safety.
A U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announcement, released in October 2020, examining pesticide residues for a variety of foods noted that “for over 25 years, USDA has tested a variety of commodities, including fresh and processed fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, poultry, grains, fish, rice, specialty products and water.” The study, conducted annually, concluded that over 99 percent of food has residue levels well below the safety tolerance levels set by the EPA. The EPA sets these tolerances at what it knows are safe levels for human consumption. While EWG may have found trace pesticide residues on produce, those residue levels are completely safe and healthy for human consumption.
- Residues can be found on organic and conventional foods, but they are not to be feared.
Both organic and conventional produce are grown with the use of pesticides; however, potential residues on either type of food are in minute amounts that are not linked to any adverse health effects. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Marketing Service has issued reports confirming that overall pesticide chemical residues found on foods are at levels below the tolerances established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and do not pose a safety concern.
Also, for many organic and conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, pesticide residues have dissipated to the point of non-existence by the time the food reaches the consumer. But even in the cases where they haven’t, 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. To give some perspective, this is the equivalent of one blade of grass on a football field or one penny out of $10 million.
- Giving elite status to organic produce is deleterious to people’s health.
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 and other organic foods as well. 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 in which people are made to believe organic fruits and vegetables are healthier can lead to unhealthy consequences.
- Major health authorities and many dietitians agree that people need to eat more fruits and vegetables.
On average, Americans don’t come close to meeting these recommendations in the first place, and adding an additional barrier brings us further away from the target: eating a healthful, balanced diet. Eighty-seven percent of us fail to eat enough vegetables and 76 percent are not eating enough fruits. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as well as the American Medical Association (AMA), the American Cancer Society, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics encourage people to eat more, not less, of a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Shelf-stable foods, organic or conventional, present reliable and healthy foods for all of us.
Often fresh fruits and vegetables are not available to us or may not fit into our budgets. When this happens there are many dried, canned and frozen fruits and vegetables available that offer a nutritious way to access these foods. Just as for fresh fruits and veggies, you do not need to be in search for the organic version of these foods to be safe.
In sum, these types of “do not eat” lists, which are not soundly scientifically based and aim to undermine the regulatory process that upholds our food system, are irresponsible and haphazard. We hope that our Safety Seven list will be helpful while we all navigate the best way to access safe and healthy foods for ourselves and family members.