Pumpkins take center stage in cooking and decorating applications (happy Halloween, by the way) during the fall season. It’s hard to miss the large totes of the large orange squashes in our local stores. As one of the most popular crops in the U.S., an amazing 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins are produced each year. Do a quick Google search for “scary jack o lanterns” and you’ll discover hundreds of images with frightening faces. Scarier still, is that most pumpkins you’ll engage with this fall, as either fresh or canned, are grown in large farming operations that use a variety of chemicals including clomazone and ethalfluralin.
I don’t know about you, but even trying to pronounce these terms is difficult, let alone understanding what harm they might cause should I consume them. If you’re concerned about pesticides, you’re not alone. A recent Consumer Reports found that pesticides are a concern for almost 90 percent of Americans.
According to Consumer Reports, “The risk from pesticides on conventional produce varies from very low to very high, depending on the type of produce and on the country where it’s grown. The differences can be dramatic. For instance, eating one serving of green beans from the U.S. is 200 times riskier than eating a serving of U.S.-grown broccoli.
“We’re exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from our food on a daily basis,” says Michael Crupain, M.D., M.P.H., director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center. “For instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are traces of 29 different pesticides in the average American’s body.”
So what can you do to reduce your exposure to pesticides? First, always wash produce before eating them. This is the golden rule if you want to stay on the safe side. Always wash your fruits and vegetables before eating them, especially if you plan to eat them fresh (in the raw form) instead of cooking them.
Second, grow or buy organic, because the only way to be sure that you are eating 100 percent, unadulterated, unsprayed products is by growing them yourself or buying organically grown produce. Buying local is the best option, but if you’re in the grocery store, look for labels with codes starting with the number 9. Buying organic sends a message that you support environmentally friendly farming practices that minimize soil erosion, safeguard workers and protect water quality and wildlife.
However, organic foods are not always accessible. Enter the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. In addition to investigating such questions as do you know what’s in your shampoo, what’s lurking in the cleaners underneath your sink, what are GMOs, and how do harmful chemicals affect children differently from adults, the EWG has created a “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce” to help consumers make the healthiest choices at the store.
Of course, it’s better to eat fruits and vegetables, even conventionally grown ones, over processed foods and other less healthy alternatives.
Below is the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen (You can get a downloadable version of the guide with all 48 fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue dat -to your computer, tablet or smartphone at www.ewg.org/foodnews/).
(listed from worst to not-as-bad)
Strawberries, apples, nectarines, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers.
A word about strawberries, which are at the top of the Dirty Dozen list. According to USDA tests, strawberries are the fresh produce items most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residues, even after they are picked, rinsed in the field and washed before eating. Americans eat nearly eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year, and with them dozens of pesticides, including chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive damage or are banned in Europe. Findings by the EWG say strawberry growers use jaw-dropping volumes of poisonous gases, some developed for chemical warfare but now banned by the Geneva Conventions, to sterilize their fields before planting, killing every pest, weed and other living thing in the soil.
(list from cleanest to not-as-clean)
Avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, sweet peas (frozen), onions, asparagus, mangos, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, honeydew melon, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower.
The data used to create the EWG’s lists are from produce tested as it is typically eaten, that means washed and, when applicable, peeled. For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed. That said, remember that some crops absorb pesticides systemically (absorbed by the plants), which means washing fruits and vegetables isn’t the end-all solution. The safest choice is to choose organic and avoid conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues.
While pumpkins don’t appear on the Dirty Dozen list, they don’t show up on the Clean Fifteen list, either. Please folks, to reduce your exposure to scary fruits and vegetables, know what you’re eating (or feeding your family). Get the EWG’s Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, grow as much of your own food as possible, and buy organic produce whenever possible.