Summer is the perfect time to switch to sandals, unwind on a deck and indulge in those cooling, tasty treats. But did you know that it’s also the right time to think seriously about what you eat and drink?
That’s because the latest data by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) – published in Prevention in November 2011 – reveals higher levels of pesticide and chemicals in foods most commonly contaminated. Their research is based on a series of independent investigations and more than 100,000 samples of food.
Generally, the chemical pesticides detected in FDA’s and USDA’s studies have been associated with a variety of health problems, such as cancer, birth defects, nervous system and brain damage, as well as developmental problems in children. They get onto fruits and vegetables directly or by way of water and soil – through pesticide spray drift from neighboring farms and through contact with non-organic produce after a harvest.
The good news, though, is that you can reduce your toxic chemical consumption this summer. Try eating less of the so-called “Dirty Dozen,” the most contaminated foods – even after washing and peeling – according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They include apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines, grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries and potatoes.
1. Beef, pork and poultry is contaminated with higher levels of pesticides than any plant food. Antibiotics, drugs and hormones, which are standard in animal husbandry, all accumulate and are passed on to consumers. What’s more, fish have been known to carry a higher risk for heavy metals than pesticides, even though many freshwater fish are exposed to high levels of pesticides from contaminated water.
2. For the same reasons, milk, cheese and butter are at high risk for contamination by pesticides. That’s because animals concentrate pesticides and chemicals in their own meat and milk. Growth hormones and antibiotics are other serious factors.
3. Strawberries, raspberries and cherries are widely considered to have the most pesticides. Roughly 300 pounds of pesticides are applied to each acre of strawberries. That’s compared to an average of 25 pounds per acre for other foods. In all, 36 different pesticides are regularly used on strawberries. As a result, 90 percent of strawberries tested reveal pesticide contamination above safe levels.
4. Containing 36 different chemicals – half of which can cause brain damage – apples are almost as contaminated as strawberries. Nearly 91 percent of apples tested by the FDA and USDA were shown to have pesticide residue. Pears, meanwhile, rank close to apples with 35 pesticides and 94 percent contamination.
5. Today, it’s a fairly standard practice to spray conventionally grown tomatoes with more than 30 pesticides. But tomatoes’ thin skin does nothing to prevent chemicals from seeping in. So don’t bother peeling them!
6. Potatoes rank among the most contaminated with pesticides and fungicides. Seventy-nine percent of potatoes tested exceed safe levels of multiple pesticides – roughly 29 of them in all.
7. The most frequently contaminated vegetable, spinach was found by the FDA and the USDA to contain dangerous levels of 36 chemical pesticides. Eighty-three percent of conventionally grown spinach, in fact.
8. Unfortunately, coffee is grown in countries where there are little to no regulations concerning the use of chemicals and pesticides on food.
9. Ninety-seven percent of peaches and 95 percent of nectarines tested showed contamination from at least 45 pesticides.
10. In most vineyards, grapes are sprayed with 35 different pesticides. In fact, several of the most poisonous pesticides banned in the U.S. are still used on grapes grown abroad. About 86 percent of all grapes, as a result, now test positive for pesticide contamination.
11. At least 94 percent of conventionally grown celery tested was found to have at least 29 pesticide residues – those that exceed safe levels and cannot be washed off.
12. Bell peppers, both red and green, are one of the most heavily sprayed foods, with standard use of 39 pesticides. Roughly 68 percent of bell peppers tested by the FDA and the USDA showed high levels of chemical pesticide residues. Unfortunately, though, the thin skin of peppers offers no protection against pesticides either.
Alternatively, you can incorporate what’s considered to be the least contaminated produce in your diet. The “Clean 15” is as follows: Onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocado, cabbage, sweet peas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplant, kiwi, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, watermelons and mushrooms.
And such food is easy enough to get if you’re willing to do some extra work. First, do a little research; organic associations and organizations are good places to start.
Shop at farmers’ markets; they’re fresher and cheaper sources of produce. Purchase a share in a community-supported agriculture program; you’ll receive your organic food straight from the farm – sometimes picked that same morning. Join a co-op; they provide organic groceries – sometimes from local family farms – to its members at a discount.
And buy in bulk; whether you’re getting natural foods at a supermarket or co-op, this practice is one of the best ways to make your food dollar stretch.
Or you can just grow your own organic produce; seeds are widely available at health food stores and local seed saver community groups. Just remember to start off small!