We all grew up hearing that we should “eat more fruits and veggies.” Now, as parents, we often go to great lengths to get a “rainbow of color” into our kids’ diets. Most of us struggle with this—when it comes to vegetables, my kids will only consistently eat broccoli and asparagus, so it’s hardly a rainbow!
As many of you know, there is a dark side to fruits and vegetables. Conventionally grown produce is often laden with agricultural chemicals. This includes toxic pesticides that the government has yet to ban, despite incredibly strong scientific evidence of harm to human health. (For more on this, check out “Poison Fruit,” Sharon Lerner’s recent article about Dow Chemical’s efforts to prevent the government from banning chlorpyrifos, a widely used pesticide linked to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. Warning: Don’t read before bedtime—you may be too angry and scared to sleep!)
The good news is that there are simple (and affordable!) steps you can take to reduce the pesticides in your diet.
1. Buy organic produce—where it counts.
I know, I know…organic produce is often more expensive—like, much more expensive—than conventionally grown fruits and vegetables. I don’t recommend that you blow your monthly budget on organic fruits and vegetables. Instead, spend your fruit and veggie dollars strategically by using the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists.
EWG’s 2016 Dirty Dozen ListStrawberriesApplesPeaches
NectarinesCeleryGrapesCherriesSpinachTomatoesSweet bell peppersCherry tomatoesCucumbers
These lists guide you to buy organic versions of the fruits and vegetables that tend to have the highest levels of pesticides, and buy conventional versions of the cleaner ones. Check out the EWG’s website for a free download of the lists—stash it in your wallet to reference while you shop!
These changes matter. Switching to more organic produce has a positive effect on pesticide levels in the body, and this effect happens in a matter of days, according to research by Chensheng Lu and colleagues.
2. Wash produce wisely.
Recently I gave a presentation at a preschool in Manhattan for a Q&A session with parents, and one thing that came up was what kinds of products parents should use to safely wash fruits and vegetables. Short answer—you can’t simply wash (or peel) away pesticides, but simple washing methods still matter.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that washing produce is not the best way to reduce pesticide exposure. Their pesticide risk rankings are based on tests of fruits and vegetables “as eaten,” or washed and peeled as appropriate for the specific type of produce. The EWG says that pesticides can be in the whole fruit, not just on the outside.
That said, you should still wash produce before eating it. Here are some tips:
- Use cold, running water (soaking or dunking just re-exposes produce to the stuff you’re trying to wash away).
- Scrub the surface of root vegetables and other firm-skinned produce.
- Dry with a clean cloth.
- Peel when appropriate, and remove the outer leaves of leafy produce.
What about fruit and veggie washes and DIY tricks like soaking produce in a vinegar solution? Probably not worth the extra expense and effort. Store-bought produce washes often have sketchy ingredients and aren’t necessarily effective. And vinegar has to be used in a pretty high concentration (like 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water) to kill some microbes, and I couldn’t find compelling evidence that it reduces pesticide levels better than washing with water alone. Unless you are dealing with a compromised immune system, the tips I offer above are the easiest and most effective ways to get your produce clean.
3. Filter your water.
Because agricultural chemicals have been so widely used for many decades, they are present in our environment, including our drinking water. This is one of the many reasons that I recommend that people use a comprehensive water filter in their homes.
4. Lose shoes at the door.
You’ve probably heard me say this before, but one of the simplest things you can do to decrease the toxic load in your house (and keep it a little cleaner!) is to make sure that everyone removes their shoes at the door. Otherwise, you’re tracking in all kinds of gross stuff, including chemicals used in gardens, farms, lawns and parks; animal feces; lead-contaminated dust; etc. If you have dogs or other indoor-outdoor animals, wipe down their paws at the door.
These habits are especially important if you have rugs and carpets (toxins can linger in the fibers for years, even if you clean diligently) and if you have young children who spend a lot of time on the floor.