Photo: Mackenzie Stroh
Q: Considering the publicity about pesticides, which should I do: stop eating fresh produce, buy frozen, buy dried, buy juice, or eat only what can be peeled, like bananas and oranges? —Maggie Bishop, Deep Gap, North Carolina
A: My patients have often used their concerns about pesticides as an argument against eating vegetables—and I always wonder whether their concerns are genuine or just an excuse. Either way, the benefits of consuming vegetables and fruits (in that order) outweigh any harm. Still, there are easy ways to protect yourself. Organophosphates are among the most worrisome pesticides, and one of the most widely utilized. They can harm the nervous system—organophosphates are also used to make nerve gas. The developing brains of fetuses and young children are particularly at risk, so spending extra for organic baby food is probably worth it. The Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a nonprofit research organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment—has found that the following produce consistently carries the highest levels of pesticides after typical home preparation (such as washing and peeling): peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. You can reduce your exposure by purchasing "100 percent organic" versions of them. The EWG also lists the fruits and vegetables that have the least amount of pesticide residues—if you want to save money, you could purchase nonorganic versions of these: onions, avocados, frozen corn, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, frozen peas, kiwi, bananas, cabbage, broccoli, and papaya. Canned produce, juices, and dried and frozen produce often have lower residue levels because of the diligent washing and peeling that precedes processing.
A more pressing concern is food poisoning. Every other week seems to bring news of another outbreak. But you can avoid bacteria like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria by thoroughly cleaning your produce; give the stuff that's been bagged or has thick rinds the same treatment. Cold water will do the job: Just thoroughly rub soft-skinned fruits like nectarines and peaches with your hands under a running tap for at least 30 seconds. Rough-skinned melons and citrus fruits can be scrubbed with a brush before cutting or peeling. (Handling and cutting the rinds can spread bacteria to the fruit.) Drying with a paper towel will remove even more contaminants, but using special vegetable rinses doesn't seem to offer much advantage. (Run your brush through the dishwasher regularly to keep it from becoming a home to bacteria.)
Follow this buying and cleaning advice, eat a variety of produce (to avoid overexposure to any one type of pesticide), and you and your family should be fine.