Watch Out for These "Healthy" Foods

Pre-Packed Salad

Story at-a-glance -

  • Pears, grapes, apples, and pre-packed salads were among the most heavily pesticide-contaminated foods in the U.K.
  • Wheat, rice, flour and bread were also commonly contaminated with pesticide residues
  • In the U.S., peaches, strawberries, apples and nectarines top the most-contaminated list; buy these organic whenever possible

By Dr. Mercola

Vegetables and fruits are among the healthiest foods you can eat, but they're also foods that are commonly contaminated with pesticides.

According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 75 percent of the U.S. population has detectable levels of organophosphate pesticides in their urine, and unless you're a farmer, your diet is one of the most likely routes of exposure.1

Eating organic is one of the best ways to lower your overall pesticide burden. In one recent study, those who "often or always" ate organic had about 65 percent lower levels of pesticide residues compared to those who ate the least amount of organic produce.2

Eating an all-organic diet is the ideal – but it doesn't have to be all or nothing. Not everyone has access to organic foods or the resources necessary to buy them (organic foods aren't always more expensive than conventionally grown foods, but they tend to cost about 20 percent to 100 percent more3).

If you can't go all organic, picking and choosing carefully, and opting for organic versions of heavily contaminated foods and conventional versions of "cleaner" food items, is the next best strategy.

Why It's Important to Minimize Your Pesticide Exposure

The U.S. uses about 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides each year,4 and it's not uncommon for your apple or strawberries to contain two different pesticides, or more.

While in the U.S. tolerance levels are set that determine upper allowable limits for individual pesticides, there is no legal limit on the number of different pesticides allowed on food.

The effects of these chemical cocktails are unknown, but concern is warranted, especially since adults and children alike are exposed to low doses for a lifetime. Nick Mole of the Pesticide Action Network U.K. (PAN U.K.) told The Telegraph:5

"Around 60 percent of fruit and vegetables contain pesticide residue … Eating an apple isn't going to kill you … obviously, but it's the long-term effects of low doses that we don't know about.

Foods with traces of more than one pesticide are potentially the biggest concern, says Mole, who suggests anyone considering switching to organic should prioritize these."

The CHAMACOS Study is among those showing that very small amounts of pesticides may be harmful, in this case to kids' brains. It followed hundreds of pregnant women living in Salinas Valley, California, an agricultural mecca that has had up to a half-million pounds of organophosphates sprayed in the region per year.

The children were followed through age 12 to assess what impact the pesticides had on their development.6 It turns out the impact was quite dramatic, and mothers' exposure to organophosphates during pregnancy was associated with:7

  • Shorter duration of pregnancy
  • Poorer neonatal reflexes
  • Lower IQ and poorer cognitive functioning in children
  • Increased risk of attention problems in children

Brenda Eskenazi, chief investigator of the CHAMACOS study, also noted that the effects of combined chemical exposures need further attention:8

"The other thing we don't know about is the combined effect of exposures …Throughout the course of a day, people may eat several different types of produce, each of which may bear traces of one or more pesticides.

They encounter other types of chemicals as well — from antibacterials in soaps, to plasticizers in foodware, to flame retardants in the furniture … By day's end, you've got a combination of chemicals and an unknown level of risk."

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Pesticide Contamination: The Worst Offenders and Least Contaminated

The "worst" list below is based on data compiled by the U.K.'s Expert Committee on Pesticide Residues in Food (Prif).9 It shows the foods that most commonly contain more than one pesticide residue in the U.K..

  1. Oranges
  2. Lemons and limes
  3. Pears
  4. Grapes
  5. Apples
  6. Pre-packed salads
  7. Bananas
  8. Spring greens
  9. Kale
  10. Herbs
  11. Spinach
  12. Cucumber

The "best" list, below shows foods that are least likely to contain more than one pesticide residue. These are among the safest to purchase conventionally grown in the U.K.:

  1. Beetroot
  2. Mushrooms
  3. Turnip
  4. Cauliflower
  5. Peas
  6. Asparagus
  7. Avocado
  8. Broccoli
  9. Potato
  10. Swede (rutabaga)
  11. Sweet potato
  12. Pumpkins/squash

Four More Foods You Should Try to Buy Organic

The Prif data also revealed four other foods that are often contaminated:

  1. Wheat
  2. Rice
  3. Flour
  4. Bread

Nearly two-thirds of non-organic bread tested by Prif between 2000 and 2013 contained at least one pesticide residue, including glyphosate. That alone is reason to look for organic versions of these grain products (although, ideally, you're not eating much of them anyway).

Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto's Roundup herbicide and may be at least partially to blame for rising rates of numerous chronic diseases in Westernized societies, according to research published in Entropy.10

Authored by Stephanie Seneff, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Anthony Samsel, a retired science consultant, the report argues that glyphosate residues "enhance the damaging effects of other food-borne chemical residues and toxins in the environment to disrupt normal body functions and induce disease."

In a study published in 2013, researchers also concluded that glyphosate is a xenoestrogen that is functionally similar to estradiol, the most potent human estrogen, and concentrations in the parts-per-trillion range had carcinogenic effects.11

In early 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is the research arm of the World Health Organization (WHO), also determined glyphosate to be a "probable carcinogen" (Class 2A), based on "limited evidence" showing that the popular weed killer can cause non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and lung cancer in humans, along with "convincing evidence" it can also cause cancer in animals.

How much glyphosate is in your food? In the U.S., no one knows because the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not test for it.

Are You Eating Any of These Pesticide-Loaded Foods?

Best and Worst Foods

In this infographic "The Best and Worst Foods," discover how pesticides are damaging your body, including your brain. Here is the list of the best and worst foods you might be consuming. Use the embed code to share it on your website.

<img src="" alt="Best and Worst Foods" border="0" style="max-width:100%; min-width:300px; margin: 0 auto 20px auto; display:block;"><p style="max-width:800px; min-width:300px; margin:0 auto; text-align:center;">In this infographic "<a href="">The Best and Worst Foods</a>," discover how pesticides are damaging your body, including your brain. Here is the list of the best and worst foods you might be consuming. Use the embed code to share it on your website.</p>

Which Foods Are Most Contaminated in the U.S.?

The worst offenders above are based on U.K. data, which is somewhat different from data collected in the U.S. Animal products, like meats, butter, milk, and eggs, are actually the most important to buy organic no matter where you live, since animal products tend to bioaccumulate toxins from their pesticide-laced feed, concentrating them to far higher concentrations than are typically present in vegetables.

Unlike conventional fruits and vegetables, where peeling and washing can sometimes reduce the amounts of these toxins, the pesticides and drugs that these animals get exposed to during their lives can become incorporated into their very tissues, especially their fat. So if you're on a budget, choose organic animal foods first.

Consumer Reports analyzed 12 years of data from the USDA's Pesticide Data Program to determine the risk categories (from very low to very high) for different types of produce. Because children are especially vulnerable to the effects of environmental chemicals, including pesticides, they based the risk assessment on a 3.5-year-old child.

They recommended buying organic for any produce that came back in the medium or higher risk categories, which left the following foods as examples of those you should always try to buy organic.

Peaches Carrots
Strawberries Green Beans
Sweet Bell Peppers Hot Peppers
Tangerines Nectarines
Cranberries Sweet Potatoes

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also ranks fruits and vegetables for their "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean 15" lists, which combine six different measures of contamination to come up with a composite score for each type of produce. The results are as follows:12

EWG's 2015 Dirty Dozen (Buy These Organic)

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas (imported)
  12. Potatoes
  13. Bonus: Hot Peppers and Kale/Collard greens

EWG's 2015 Clean 15 (OK to Buy These Conventional)

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet peas (frozen)
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangos
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwifruit
  11. Eggplant
  12. Grapefruit
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Sweet potatoes

A Bonus to Eating Organic: More Nutritious Foods

It's not only a lack of pesticides that makes organic foods preferable. They also have on average 48 percent lower levels of cadmium, a toxic metal and a known carcinogen — a clear bonus, if you ask me.13 They also will be free of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and tend to be healthier overall.

One key nutritional difference between conventional and organics is their antioxidant content. According to research published in the British Journal of Nutrition, organic fruits and vegetables can contain anywhere from 18 to 69 percent more antioxidants than conventionally grown varieties.14

Study co-author Charles Benbrook notes that one reason you're advised to eat more fruits and vegetables is in fact to get more antioxidants into your diet. "And if organic produce provides more of them, we think that's a big deal," he says.15 I couldn't agree more.

Keep in mind, also, that some locally grown foods may be grown according to organic standards (or close to them) without receiving the organic certification (a process that can be cost prohibitive for some small farms). Shopping for produce locally is the best way to get fresh, nutrient-rich foods, and the added bonus is you can ask the farmer directly how the food is grown (with or without the use of synthetic pesticides, for instance).

In order to be certified organic, a food must be grown without the use of most synthetic pesticides. However, certain natural pesticides, and a few synthetic ones, are allowed, even in organic farming.

Alternatively, you can try growing some of your own produce using organic methods right in your own backyard. And finally, if you know you have been exposed to pesticides, the lactic acid bacteria formed during the fermentation of kimchi may help your body break down pesticides. So including fermented foods like kimchi in your diet may also be a wise ongoing strategy to help detox the pesticides that do enter your body.