Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables: Are They Really Healthy?

98 percent of apples test positive for chemicals.

June 13, 2011— -- You know you should eat your fruits and vegetables, but with a "dirty dozen" list of pesticide-contaminated produce out today and the recent e.coli outbreak linked to supposedly safer organic produce, what's a would-be healthy eater to do?

The answer from health experts -- and even the people who did the study on pesticide residue in produce -- is still the same: Eat those fruits and vegetables, but get them as clean as you can.

The importance of washing produce before eating or cooking it was driven home today by the release of a "dirty dozen" list of fruits and vegetables that tested positive for the highest concentration of pesticides.

"Pesticides are toxic. They are designed to kill things and most are not good for you" said Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group, which released the study. The non-profit organization attempts to raise awareness about pollutants and dangerous chemicals

Apples, a staple in many refrigerators, topped the list with 98 percent testing positive for a pesticide and 92 percent testing positive for two or more pesticides. Coming in second was celery, with more than 95 percent testing positive for at least one pesticide.

Others on the list of shame include: strawberries, peaches, spinach, nectarines, grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, blueberries, lettuce and kale or collard greens.

Get the Full Dirty Dozen List

The benefits of fruits and vegetables are well known, however Environmental Working Group spokesman Alex Formuzis says the pesticides they're coated with have been linked to nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system disruption and IQ deficits in children.

But even though some pesticides were still found on the produce after they were washed and peeled, Formuzis said the benefits of fruits and vegetables still outweigh the problems associated with some other snack foods.

"If it's a choice between an apple and potato chips, choose the apple," he said.

Pesticides, which are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, are used to protect produce from bugs and also extend its supermarket shelf life.

The Alliance for Food and Farming, a trade group that opposes the new study, says consumers should keep eating the fruits and vegetables in the so-called "dirty dozen."

"Not only are farmers of fruits and vegetables meeting requirements set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for pesticide residues, but their crops are shown to have either no residues at all or with residues 10 times to 100 times below already stringent safety limits," said Teresa Thorne of the AFF.

The Environmental Working Group agrees that eating from the "dirty dozen" is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all, but suggested that when possible, these items should be bought organic.

A portion of Americans do worry and choose to buy organic produce, which has long trumpeted itself as a healthier, albeit costlier alternative. However, after a deadly E.Coli outbreak linked to organic sprouts recently killed 36 and sickened 3,000 in Germany, is going organic really any safer?

According to Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, the answer is simple: Eat your fruits and vegetables, whether they're organic or not.

"I don't want people being afraid of eating mother nature's finest," she said. "Fruits and vegetables can help reduce the risk of so many diseases and fight obesity."

Blake says the best guarantee for keeping produce safe is to make sure it's thoroughly washed.

The Food and Drug Administration offers several tips for cleaning both fresh and organic produce, including:

Wash fruits and vegetables under running water just before eating or cooking.

Use a brush to scrub produce with hard surfaces, such as melons and cucumbers.

Cut away any damaged or bruised areas on fruits and vegetables before preparing or eating.

"Everyone has a job to do -- from the farmer to the person taking the produce to the store to the people selling the produce. And when you bring your produce home, you have a job to do too," Blake said.

The EWG's "Dirty Dozen":

1. Apples

2. Celery

3. Strawberries

4. Peaches

5. Spinach

6. Nectarines - imported

7. Grapes - imported

8. Sweet bell peppers

9. Potatoes

10. Blueberries - domestic

11. Lettuce

12. Kale/Collard greens

The EWG's Clean 15:

1. Onions

2. Sweet Corn

3. Pineapples

4. Avocado

5. Asparagus

6. Sweet peas

7. Mangoes

8. Eggplants

9. Cantaloupe - domestic

10. Kiwi

11. Cabbage

12. Watermelon

13. Sweet potatoes

14. Grapefruit

15. Mushrooms