Monday, May 21, 2012

The Real "Dirty Dozen" Deal

My friend is expecting a baby! Being understandably protective of her unborn child, she asked me about what foods I buy organic. I said, "Well, I pretty much don't pay attention unless it affects the taste or quality of the product! For example, I love buying Horizon DHA fortified milk because it has more Omega-3s, but not because it is organic." If all the rules are followed, there should not be unsafe pesticide residues in our food. I understand people make mistakes and not every apple I take home has gotten tested, but I'm going to wash all my produce well and eat it anyway. HOWEVER, putting myself in my friend's shoes...if I were pregnant, I want to pretty much eliminate the normal risks I'm willing to take. I figure changing what I eat just for nine months to reduce or eliminate risks is well worth it!

You've heard of the Dirty Dozen put out by the Environmental Working Group? I'm choosing not to follow it perfectly, and I'll explain why. From the FDA Pesticide Monitoring Reports Summary, these are the only two factors that would determine how I shop for my food if I wanted to reduce my already low pesticide ingestion risks:

1) Avoid buying imported produce. Imported produce has four times the FDA residue violations that domestic produce does...not that the violative produce ever enters the grocery store; it gets destroyed, but not 100% gets tested either. I'm thankful for the checks-and-balances philosophy of accountability our forefathers grafted in to our regulatory system. I can't say the same for other countries, though.

2) Of domestic produce, avoid (or buy organic) the following products that were found in violation: Bean Sprouts, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Kale, Leaf Lettuce, Spinach, Carrots, Onions/leeks/scallions. NO conventional fruits came into violation with FDA safe residue limits, yay!

I'm state-certified for pesticide application so I know that there are very strict laws against applying pesticides the wrong way and to the wrong types of produce - many do pose a hazard in large doses (i.e., concentrated in their packaging) so the most dangerous part to humans is mixing and preparing the pesticide for use. Once they are sprayed out, they begin to react with air and sunlight, and as time goes by, they decompose into inert (safe) substances. This is why if you ever buy pesticide for a garden, it will say something like "do not apply within 5 days of harvest"... this means the FDA found it takes less than 5 days to break down into something harmless to eat. The FDA has determined a set of standards for hundreds of produce items and all possible pesticide residues that will only allow food to enter the supply chain IF the concentrations are within what is found to be "safe" -- i.e. breaks down into inert substances on its own (unstable & has a half-life) or what your liver will cause you to you eliminate.

Many pesticides are naturally derived from plants, such as nicotine, or from bacteria, such as Bt toxins and Ryanoids. Humans have nicotine receptors, but not Bt or Ryanoid receptors, so pesticides besides nicotine are not absorbed by the human body, and are harmlessly eliminated. Pyrethroids are the pesticides that are in household roach, wasp, ant, etc. killers. These are harmful to humans in high doses, but not in extremely low doses. People with poor immune systems or problematic liver function should avoid these. These chemicals react with sunlight and oxygen and break down within a certain amount of time, and these will have a withdrawal order (i.e. DO NOT APPLY within # days before harvest). However, they can avoid breaking down by entering bodies of water, and for this reason they are toxic to fish and aquatic species. Sadly, BPO, an additive in household pesticides, has been linked to complications in the mental development of children (I'd rather practice my aim with my tennis shoe / rolled up magazine against roaches than use Raid anyway).  Others are insect hormones that interfere with a bug's ability to grow...humans are insensitive to insect hormones...if you worry about Insect Growth Regulators, I will worry about you. Other insecticides form a protective covering over plants, making it difficult for bugs to eat them. This is not toxic to any organism, it's just a barrier method.

This is what the FDA's Residue Monitoring Reports look like for Fruits and Vegetables. Less than 10 U.S. produce items are found to be violative. So, why does the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish findings on "The Dirty Dozen" (foods with highest pesticide residues) and "The Clean Fifteen" (foods with lowest pesticide residues) based on 51,000 FDA tests from 2000 - 2009? Sure, these "Dirty Dozen" may have had the highest residues, but these are STILL at safe concentrations!

With the exception of Bean Sprouts, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Kale, Leaf Lettuce, Spinach, Carrots, Onions/leeks/scallions as mentioned earlier, I would argue eating the following conventional "Dirty Dozen" products would be fine: Apples, Celery, Strawberries, Peaches, Domestic Nectarines, Domestic Grapes, Bell Peppers, Potatoes, and blueberries.

The EWG argues that NO residue level is a safe level. The FDA and EPA argue that a teeny tiny reside level is a safe level, and it would be best to avoid imported produce and conventional Bean Sprouts, Cucumbers, Eggplant, Kale, Leaf Lettuce, Spinach, Carrots, Onions/leeks/scallions. Pick your side and stand with the EWG or the FDA, but, no matter what, ALWAYS wash your produce well (organic has higher bacterial contamination from manure) and keep eating your fruit and veggies!

(See also Organic or Not?)

What do you Think?


  1. Thanks for the great information :)

  2. Online Gift Store offering Baby Food from top of the line discounts on renowned national & International brands.