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Americans are arguing about lots of things these days, but one thing we can all agree on is the wisdom of mothers everywhere who tell us to eat our veggies! It's sound advice, yet fresh produce often hides an unappetizing side order of pesticide residues and other unsavory things. Here's how to keep them off the menu.
Fruits and vegetables are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that perform myriad body-boosting magic tricks. Unfortunately, conventional produce is frequently grown in a stew of pesticides, and U.S. Department of Agriculture testing has shown that traces of these chemical toxins often remain on food surfaces after harvest.
Analysis of these tests by the Environmental Working Group revealed 210 different pesticides hiding on fruits and vegetables. Some 63% of all produce samples tested had detectable levels of at least one chemical, and 10% of the samples had five or more different types.
The best solution is to eat organic, but organic produce isn't always available or affordable. Even when it is, experts caution that it can harbor bacteria and chemical residues from human handling or cross-contamination.
No matter what kind of fruits or vegetables you bring home, precautions are a good idea. Here are some to sink you teeth into:
- When you shop, select produce that isn't bruised or damaged -- an intact skin is your first line of defense. Pre-cut produce should always be refrigerated or sold on ice. And make sure you bag fruits and veggies separately from meats to avoid bacteria contact.
- Discard the outer layers of leafy foods like lettuce and cabbage before you prep.
- Wash everything even if the label says it's already been washed or you intend to peel it. (Unwashed peels can transfer their contamination to knives, hands, and the food beneath.)
- Use water that's as warm as whatever is being washed can tolerate.
- Wash small and/or delicate items like grapes, berries, leafy greens, green beans etc. by swishing them in a bath. Larger, firm, and thick-skinned items can be washed under the tap.
- If they can take it, scrub items as aggressively as possible with a soft brush or similar tool. Experts say scrubbing is the single most effective way to removing residues.
- You can also use a commercial produce wash or make your own by adding 1 tsp. of dishwashing liquid to a gallon of water.
- Cut away any damaged or bruised areas -- these are prime entry points for contamination.
- Beware of waxes. Many items are coated to keep them looking good and lasting longer, and these waxes can trap pesticides. Federal law requires waxed foods to be identified as such. If the food can tolerate a good soapy scrubbing in very warm water (for example, a tomato), this wax can be removed along with contamination beneath it. If it's a delicate food, look for an unwaxed variety.
Experts disagree about how much of a hazard is represented by pesticide residues on produce, a small degree of which will likely remain even after washing. Some say EPA standards are more than enough to keep us safe. Some disagree and say that the only acceptable pesticide level is none at all. Others say we just don't know enough about what levels of which chemicals are okay to ingest. Virtually every expert, however, agrees that skipping fruits and vegetables is never a good idea. By all accounts, the benefits these foods provide far outweigh any risks involved.
For more information on this issue, visit the Environmental Working Group's Shopping Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which includes a list of the most and least contaminated fruits and vegetable that can help you make smart choices when deciding between conventional and organic produce. I also highly recommend the Frequently Asked Questions resource, which offers a great primer on the subject it's worth your time to read.