Does my produce have pesticide residues?

In the realm of healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. However, alongside their abundant vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients, we’re bombarded with a reminder of a less savory and potentially harmful aspect: the presence of pesticide residues on our produce.

A Brief History of Pesticides & the EPA

But first, let’s get one thing straight: pesticides have a very necessary place in our global food system. Without products like insecticides, fungicides and other pesticide types, all crops would be prone to rot, leading to famine, disease, global hunger…just to name a few. If we suddenly nixed all pesticides, our current situation with egregious food waste in this country would seem inconsequential.

However, too much of a seemingly good thing always has unintended consequences. In the 1940s, the advent of powerful broad-spectrum pesticides, like DDT, gave farmers an effective, long-lasting tool to protect their animals and crops from insects. Furthermore, these powerful tools also helped combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-born human diseases.

But then its surge in application came at a cost.

By the ‘60s, word got out that excessive use of DDT posed unacceptable acute and long-term health risks to humans, including seizures, birth defects, and cancer, as well as damaging wildlife and the environment. In response to the outcry, the U.S. government took swift action and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals, including now-prohibited pesticides like DDT, aldrin, and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Pesticide Reporting

Now, in conjunction with the USDA, various crops are monitored annually for pesticide residues with the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP).

This year’s report is based on data from the 2022/23 season and includes multiple samples from over 20 fresh crops, like green beans, potatoes, and blueberries. Popular crops not tested this particular season, like apples, oranges, and avocadoes, will be included in the next rotation of tested crops.

The USDA then reports its findings in a comprehensive summary released on the PDP website. Once released to the public, consumer information agencies like Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group reinterpret the USDA’s findings to create these derivative reports, like the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list.

When you use the massive PDP database to start weaving information together across various crops over a multitude of years, you often find a conflicting story. Suddenly, these reports stating that you’re ingesting endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing nerve agents feel sensational, at best, against the opposing PDP data that show a downward trend year-over-year in highly toxic pesticides.

Non-governmental or non-academic, consumer-centric reports can generate fear and deceive us into believing that ingesting any fresh fruit or vegetable is detrimental to our overall health, or that organic produce is free from all pesticides.

Despite the many claims in these consumer reports, available evidence suggests that the low levels of pesticide residues typically found on produce are unlikely to make most people sick or cause cancer.

Focusing on Facts

With that stated, we can’t ignore some of the pesticide residue data these reports found. Specifically, reports from the PDP and Consumer Reports shared the below facts based on information from the PDP database when the USDA’s initiative began in 1994:

The good news:

  • 99% of the samples tested in this year’s report had residues below the EPA’s legal limits (or “tolerances”)
  • 28% didn’t have any detectible pesticide residues

  • Despite growing fears about the long-term effects of Roundup, or glyphosate, the controversial herbicide was only detected on crops largely intended for animal feed – soybean grain and corn grain
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), and its Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) committee, have found that pesticide residues in food are unlikely to cause cancer in people through dietary exposure:

“JMPR’s risk assessment found that based on the weight-of-evidence approach, these compounds are unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure. This means it is possible to establish safe exposure levels – acceptable daily intakes (ADI) – for consumers.”

The bad news:

  • Green beans had numerous residues exceeding current tolerance levels
    • The USDA found 16 unique pesticides on these samples, some of which the EPA canceled use or banned over a decade ago, like methamidophos
  • Of all produce exceeding EPA tolerances, 66% were from imported crops
    • Crop samples from Mexico reported the highest residue levels, including green bean samples with multiple residues exceeding EPA tolerances
    • Largely imported crops include blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and watermelon (rind removed).

An Optimistic Outlook

Though some of these findings sound concerning, we found plenty of information that shows the needle moving in the right direction.

Here are some of the highlights we found in these reports over the last few years, plus some information gathered from conducting our own research in the PDP database and other farming resources:

Lower toxicity

  • D2D analysis shows top residues found across most fresh produce crops are less toxic than previously reported years, as indicated by WHOs pesticide toxicity classifications
    • Lesser toxic fungicides include boscalid, azoxystrobin, and fluopyram; insecticides bifenthrin and imidacloprid

Increased localization

  • The USDA’s most considerable residue risks stem from just a few pesticides concentrated in specific foods grown on a small fraction of U.S. farmland
    • CR’s food safety expert, James E. Rogers, emphasizes that this concentrated risk makes it easier to identify problems and develop targeted solutions.

Better technology

  • Farmers and food producers continue to implement improved pest management practices, including advanced technologies
    • Precision ag systems in the field
      • AgZen’s patented pesticide droplet optimizer
      • FruitScout’s crop load manager platform
      • John Deere’s comprehensive machinery and production management tools
    • Scientific applications for crop management

What can we do right now?

It’s more like what you can’t do.

It feels counterintuitive, but don’t eat fewer fruits and vegetables because of pesticide concerns. The health benefits of eating lots of produce far outweigh the potential risks from these residues.

There’s no doubt about it: produce is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients necessary for a healthy body and well-functioning brain.

If anything, we all should eat more produce.

And yes, while some pesticides can negatively affect health and the environment, the levels found on most produce are extremely low and not linked to adverse health effects.

If we follow the food-prep tips below, the surface residues will be largely eliminated, allowing us to enjoy our fresh foods without fear.

  • Wash fruits and veggies under running water for 15 to 20 seconds.
    • For those especially concerned about residues, consider one of the following methods:
      • Soak your fresh produce in a bath for a few minutes with 5 parts water and 1 part vinegar, then rinse; or
      • Soak your produce in a solution of one teaspoon of baking soda per two cups of cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse
  • Peel and trim produce when possible
  • Eat a variety of produce from different sources to reduce exposure to a single pesticide or environmental contaminant
    • If you can only tolerate certain produce items, consider purchasing the following alternatives:
      • Selecting the organic counterpart, which the PDP reports to have fewer residues despite having the same nutrient density as conventional
      • Frozen produce has already been through rigorous cleaning and processing, further reducing residues than its fresh counterparts
  • Try to stick with produce farmed in the U.S.

The key is moderation and making informed choices, not eliminating nutrient-rich produce from your diet due to pesticide fears.

Is Whole-Fat Dairy Healthy?

Current consumer attitudes toward milk and dairy products are increasingly influenced by health concerns, environmental considerations, and the rise of plant-based alternatives. Many consumers have moved toward low-fat dairy options or non-dairy substitutes, perceiving them as healthier choices due to longstanding recommendations to limit saturated fat intake.

Findings from the latest dairy study highlight the potential cardiometabolic benefits of full-fat dairy. By presenting evidence that full-fat dairy may not only be harmless but potentially beneficial, these insights could encourage consumers to reconsider their choices in the dairy aisle.

This shift could lead to a renewed interest in whole-milk products and fermented dairy, balancing the dietary landscape with a broader acceptance of various dairy fat contents based on individual health benefits rather than a one-size-fits-all dietary guideline.

The comprehensive review, “Whole-Milk Dairy Foods and Cardiometabolic Health: Dairy Fat and Beyond,” authored by Avinash Pokala and colleagues , challenges longstanding beliefs about the relationship between full-fat dairy consumption and cardiometabolic health.

Historically, full-fat dairy products, which are high in saturated fats, have been thought to contribute to cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. This study scrutinizes this hypothesis by reviewing recent evidence from observational studies and randomized controlled trials.

Scope and Key Findings

The review critically examines extensive research to assess the impact of full-fat dairy products on health. It categorizes the evidence based on the type of dairy product (fermented vs. non-fermented) and explores the role of specific components like milk polar lipids. The study also considers how the dairy food matrix—comprising fats, proteins, and bioactive molecules—interacts to influence health outcomes.

Cardiometabolic Activities of Dairy Fat

Contrary to previous guidelines that recommend limiting full-fat dairy, the study finds that dairy fat intake has a neutral to beneficial effect on cardiometabolic health. It references several large-scale studies and meta-analyses which suggest that full-fat dairy consumption does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and may, in fact, offer protective benefits against metabolic syndrome (MetS) and diabetes.

Positive Effects of Fermented Dairy Products

Fermented products like yogurt and cheese consistently show beneficial effects in improving lipid profiles and potentially lowering CVD risk. For example, a meta-analysis cited in the review demonstrates that yogurt consumption is associated with a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, attributing these effects to the fermentation process which may enhance the bioavailability of bioactive peptides and other nutrients.

Role of Milk Polar Lipids

Milk polar lipids, concentrated in the milk fat globule membrane, are shown to improve blood lipid profiles and contribute to cardiovascular health. The study discusses evidence from controlled trials where milk polar lipids were found to regulate lipid absorption, reduce inflammation, and improve gut health, thereby offering a mechanistic explanation for the cardioprotective effects of full-fat dairy.

Reevaluation of Dietary Recommendations 

The review strongly advocates for updated dietary guidelines that reflect the complexity of dairy foods and their varied impacts on health. It suggests that the current recommendations may oversimplify the effects of fats found in dairy products and do not account for the protective components like polar lipids and probiotics found in fermented dairy.

Several previous studies align with these findings, supporting the beneficial effects of full-fat dairy on cardiometabolic health. For instance, the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology study found that higher dairy fat intake was associated with lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

Additionally, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Nutrition concluded that dairy consumption, irrespective of fat content, was linked to reduced risks of metabolic syndrome, hypertension, diabetes, and obesity. These studies collectively challenge the traditional views on dairy fat and support a more differentiated understanding of its impact on health.

Implications at the Grocery Store

The review encourages consumers not to avoid full-fat dairy categorically. Instead, it suggests evaluating the overall nutritional content and considering personal health needs. For instance, individuals without a high risk of cardiovascular issues might benefit from including full-fat dairy in their diet.

Additionally, consumers should note the specific benefits of fermented dairy products. These products not only aid in digestion due to their probiotic content but also provide enhanced cardiometabolic benefits. This study underscores the importance of personalized dietary choices that consider the nutritional benefits of dairy products in the context of an overall diet and individual health profiles.

Dairy Considerations beyond Diet

Outside of the obvious health take aways for consumers based on the new information in this study, consumers are increasingly making their dietary choices based on both nutrition and environmental considerations.

The dairy industry has the potential to contribute positively to environmental sustainability through various innovative practices and technologies. Here are some ways the industry can help the environment:

Sustainable Farming Practices

By adopting more sustainable farming practices, such as managed grazing, the dairy industry can enhance soil health, increase carbon sequestration, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Managed grazing involves rotating dairy cattle through pasture lands, which can help maintain soil fertility and reduce erosion.

Renewable Energy

Dairy farms can utilize manure as a resource by converting it into biogas through anaerobic digestion. This process not only reduces methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas—but also produces renewable energy that can power the farm and potentially supply electricity to local communities.

Efficient Use of Resources

Implementing precision agriculture techniques can help dairy farmers use water, feed, and energy more efficiently. Precision feeding programs optimize the amount of feed for cattle, reducing waste and minimizing the environmental impact of feed production.

Waste Recycling

By improving waste recycling processes, dairy farms can turn by-products like manure and wastewater into valuable resources such as organic fertilizers and irrigation water, thereby reducing dependency on chemical fertilizers and promoting water conservation.

Packaging Innovations

The dairy industry can also make a significant environmental impact by innovating in packaging solutions. Developing biodegradable or recyclable packaging can reduce waste and the carbon footprint associated with traditional plastic packaging.

Collaboration & Certification

Engaging in partnerships with environmental organizations can help dairy farms implement best practices and become certified in sustainable agricultural methods. Certifications can serve as a signal to consumers who are concerned about the environmental impact of their purchases.

Educating Consumers 

The industry has a role in educating consumers about the importance of sustainable dairy production and the environmental benefits of supporting local and sustainably produced dairy products.

By focusing on these areas, the dairy industry can transform from being part of the environmental problem to an active part of the solution, contributing to a more sustainable agricultural sector and helping mitigate the impact of climate change.