5 Misconceptions About Pesticides on Food

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More than a billion pounds of pesticides are used in the U.S. every year, according to the most recent data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Most of those chemicals are used in agriculture. As a result, we’re consuming them daily along with the fruits, vegetables, grains, and other plants we eat. 

But there’s a lot of confusion about where pesticides are found, and the role they play in the health of people and the planet. Understanding the truth behind these five common misconceptions can help you make the best choices for you and your family.

1. Organic Produce Has Concerning Pesticide Residues, Too

Reality: When CR analyzed data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program, which tests for 450 pesticides, we found that the vast majority of organic produce had very low or no pesticide residues. (See our special report “Stop Eating Pesticides,” which includes ratings of fruits and vegetables.)

While some pesticides are permitted under USDA organic regulations, pesticide is a broad term used to refer to a range of substances from those with low toxicity to those that are very toxic even in small amounts. In general, the regulations ban most synthetic pesticides—which are of greatest concern—and allow for the use of some natural ones. 

The National Organic Standards Board makes recommendations about which substances are permitted in organic farming. Chemicals are evaluated for potential adverse effects on people, animals, and the environment and approved only if they’re judged to be compatible with a system of sustainable agriculture.

But even those pesticides are used as a last resort. Controlling pests (insects, weeds, and plant diseases) without synthetic chemicals is one of the basic tenets of organic farming. Farmers must follow integrated pest management plans that rely on natural methods, such as crop rotation and other methods to maintain healthy soil, and use pesticides only if these methods fail.

2. If It’s Not Organic, It’s Loaded With Pesticides

Reality: Eating organic is just one way to avoid eating harmful pesticides. Fortunately, there are plenty of nonorganic fruits and vegetables that are safer options. Out of 49 fruits and vegetables items CR rated for pesticide risk, we determined that 31 nonorganic versions, either domestic or imported, are similar to organic in that they’re grown with fewer and/or safer pesticides.

And in many cases, for nonorganic produce items that do pose a higher risk, there’s a less risky substitute: sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes, for example, or broccoli or asparagus instead of green beans.

3. Washing Fruits and Vegetables Gets Rid of Pesticides

Reality: Washing doesn’t eliminate all residues. Under the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program guidelines, produce is washed before it’s tested, and pesticide residues are still found. Still, studies show that washing produce in water removes significant amounts of chemicals, says Michael Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist at CR. We recommend washing in cold running water for 15 to 20 seconds.

A few studies have found that other methods can get rid of more pesticides than water alone, but they’re limited to certain fruits and vegetables and to certain pesticides, so it’s not clear how widely applicable they are.

For instance, one study found that soaking apples in a solution of water and baking soda for 12 to 15 minutes completely removed two types of pesticides. In another, 20 minutes of soaking in either a vinegar solution or salt water removed more pesticides from cabbage than 20 minutes of soaking in tap water. Neither method is particularly practical, Hansen says, and they may affect the flavor of the fruit or vegetable. But if you want to take an extra step, they may help.

4. Peeling Gets Rid of Pesticides

Reality: While peeling helps, it isn’t a complete solution. In the USDA’s PDP, before it’s tested, produce is prepared the way many consumers would. That means peeling items such as bananas and citrus, and removing rinds from foods like melons. But some pesticides penetrate beyond the skin or peel and into the flesh of the fruit or vegetable, while other pesticides can be taken up by the plant while it grows. For example, nonorganic imported watermelon received only a Fair score in CR’s ratings because it still contained residues of pesticides that our experts consider potentially harmful.

5. With Pesticides, ‘The Dose Makes the Poison’

Reality: The adage “the dose makes the poison” is a basic tenet of toxicology that means that higher doses of substances cause worse adverse effects. And it’s certainly true that high doses of pesticides cause harm.

The EPA says, for example, that between 1,800 and 3,000 acute pesticide-related injuries or illnesses are reported annually among farmers and farmworkers. But the phrase is often used as an explanation for why small amounts of pesticides, even highly toxic ones, on food aren’t a concern. 

In fact, there is evidence that over time, small doses of some pesticides can have harmful effects on health. That’s especially the case for those that can disrupt the endocrine system, which produces and regulates hormones in your body.

And the current limits on the amounts of pesticides that are permitted on food don’t always take endocrine effects into account. When the EPA sets limits on the amounts of various substances allowed in food, it bases those limits on laboratory studies that test for the lowest dose of a pesticide that doesn’t cause harm in an animal. But studies of endocrine-disrupting chemicals have suggested that these substances may lead to harm at levels lower than allowed by regulators.

When the exposure occurs matters too. Infants and young children are especially at risk. Pesticide exposure can affect children’s development at many stages, starting in the womb, and have lifelong effects 

For example, research by Michele La Merrill, PhD, an associate professor at U.C. Davis, suggests there is a link between early-life exposure to DDT, an insecticide that’s now banned in the U.S., and obesity in adulthood. DDT may reduce the function of the hormone insulin, which instructs the body to process the glucose in your blood after eating a meal.

Some now-middle-aged adults in the U.S. were exposed to DDT during a “critical window of development,” La Merrill says. That might be contributing to the increase in rates of obesity and overweight that we see today.

And although DDT is no longer used in the U.S., a wide variety of pesticides that have been associated with endocrine-disrupting effects are still employed in food production today.

That’s why CR’s scientists think that several suspected endocrine-disrupting pesticides, which we found contributed greatly to the risk from a number of fruits and vegetables, should be banned. Find out more about those chemicals here.

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Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2020, Consumer Reports, Inc.

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