The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently published their annual “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15 ” lists. In case you are not familiar with the Dirty dozen and Clean 15 lists, they are comprised of fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest levels of measured pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and residues, respectively. Simply stated, the take home message from the EWG’s findings is that organic produce should be the preferred choice for the Dirty Dozen list and non-organic is ok for the produce in the Clean 15. But is this what you should be doing?
The recommendations are straightforward if you subscribe to any one or a combination of the following: a) you prefer to consume organic food, b) you believe that any level of chemical is unsafe to consume, c) you can afford to purchase organic food products and/or d) organic options are available year round in the area where you live.
But what if you are on a strict budget, you are on the fence about the EWG claims and/or organic produce is not consistently available where you live? Should you skip non-organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list if it is all that is available? What about when eating out or traveling? Are some groups at greater risk of exposure than others? All these questions can make the choice between organic vs. non-organic produce more complex and personal.
Roundup and Glyphosate in the Spotlight
There were over 200 chemicals and chemical residues identified in the most recent USDA sampling of the fruits and vegetables that comprise the Dirty Dozen list. Needless to say there isn’t enough space in this blog to cover even a small fraction of them in detail, but there is one herbicide in particular that you may be familiar with, but curiously was not tested for in the most recent round of testing - glyphosate. The most recent large scale testing by the USDA that included glyphosate occurred in 2011 and the majority of the fruits and vegetables tested in the 2011 sampling contained some measurable level of glyphosate or glyphosate residues. But is glyphosate toxic to humans at levels typically encountered in food and the environment?
Glyphosate has been in the news recently and was the subject of successful lawsuits brought by plaintiffs that alleged their Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma was caused by glyphosate and the commercial product it is most commonly associated with, Roundup. Workers that spray glyphosate containing products are likely exposed to thousands of times higher levels of glyphosate and associated formulations ingredients over their lifetime than typical consumers of non-organic fruits and vegetables. Even with higher levels of exposure, a recent study examining farmers and their spouses in North Carolina and Iowa reported no significant associations between glyphosate use and cancer risk (including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma).
While there isn’t a definitive link between cancer and glyphosate at typical levels encountered in the environment, there may be other areas of concern that impact human physiology. The authors of a recent animal study reported that at dosing levels currently considered safe in humans, the microbiome of juvenile rats were significantly modified when exposed to a glyphosate containing formulation. Another study again showed that glyphosate alone had no measurable effect on the bacteria, while the glyphosate containing formulation did alter bacteria levels. What is the significance of these studies? It is unlikely that glyphosate alone is contributing to adverse outcomes in mammals, but the full formulation with accompanying chemicals may.
As most grocery shoppers are aware, organic produce is more expensive than non-organic options by approximately 7.5 percent, although the cost gap is continuing to close for fresh produce. Organic bread, milk, eggs and processed foods, however, still tend to be much more expensive than non-organic options. Glyphosate use rates tend to be highest in grain crops, particularly wheat and oats, so if you are concerned about glyphosate and glyphosate residues specifically, you may want to consider purchasing organic wheat and oat containing products, particularly for infants and children.
The Health Costs of Low Levels of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption
According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) only one in ten (10%) US adults consumes sufficient levels of fruits and vegetables. So what does the data say about consuming “dirty” fruits and vegetables vs. little to no fruits and vegetables at all? Large scale population studies have shown that fruit and vegetable consumption (fresh and cooked) and consuming greater than 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, whether organic or not, are inversely related to all-causes of mortality. Systematic reviews of the literature have reinforced these findings with 5 serving of fruit and vegetables per day being the cut off level needed for positive effects. Simply stated, the more fruits and vegetables you consume, regardless of the manner in which they are grown, the lower your risk of disease and early death.
The choice on whether to consume organic or non-organic food items is only one of many important factors to consider when making food selections. No reasonable person would argue that smoking organic tobacco is a healthy activity. All tobacco consumption poses health risks, regardless of the manner in which is grown. Similarly, there is no real evidence that consuming organic sugar offers any tangible benefits over non-organic sugar. It’s the intake of excessive levels of sugar, more so than how the sugar cane or beet was grown, that is a true enemy of good health.
If you choose to exclusively consume organic produce, it is consistently accessible where you live and you can afford to do so, then by all means, consume organic foods to minimize your exposure to chemicals and chemical residues. However, if you are on the fence about whether organic vs. non-organic food selection is an important consideration, you have a limited food budget and/or organic produce isn’t readily available where you live, then we recommend adhering to the following simple guidelines:
1. Choose organic foods if you are pregnant or nursing and for children, particularly during early development.
2. If you are not in an at risk group then you should consume at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, whether organic or non-organic, to mitigate long-term, adverse health risks.
3. Strictly limit all processed foods regardless of the manner in which they are grown, particularly table sugar and sugar sweetened foods and beverages. Buying organic can sometimes be a luxury you can’t afford or find. While mitigating risk of pesticide exposure is important, getting enough fruits and vegetables in your diet (at least 5 servings per day) can be positively life-changing!
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