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Avoiding Toxic Produce

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How to choose strawberries and other fruits and vegetables that aren’t covered with toxic chemicals

Washing produce thoroughly will get rid of dirt and contaminants, but government studies of pesticides used on fruits and vegetables have shown that chemical residue is more than skin deep. Toxic substances can penetrate the rind and seep deep into the flesh itself. To avoid them, you need to do more than wash at the sink -- you need to choose correctly at the market. Here’s some advice for picking healthy, safe produce.

Step 1: Buy Organic

Particularly where it counts. Some conventionally grown fruits and vegetables come with high pesticide levels. Research by the Environmental Working Group has shown that these 14 fruit and vegetables have the highest average pesticide levels, and choosing the organic varieties can lower the amount of pesticides you consume by 80 percent:

  • Apples
  • Bell peppers
  • Blueberries
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Collard greens/kale
  • Imported Grapes
  • Lettuce
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries

On the other hand, some conventionally grown produce items have very low pesticide levels, making them a more acceptable choice. These varieties include:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Cabbage
  • Domestic canteloupe
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Honeydew melons
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Onions
  • Pineapples
  • Sweet corn
  • Sweet peas
  • Watermelon

Step 2: Embrace Variety

If you choose not to buy organic versions of the high-pesticide produce listed above, then consuming a wide variety from several sources can reduce your risk of cumulative exposure to any one particular pesticide.

Step 3: Clean Kitchens Count

Proper food preparation will also help keep pesticides off your plate. You should:

  • Always wash and peel your produce
  • Steam leafy greens when appropriate
  • Don’t shy away from giving the frozen organic version a try when the produce you want isn’t fresh

Step 5: Grow Your Own!

Most backyards provide enough space for a garden that can enliven your table with the ne plus ultra of fresh produce. See "Start Your Gardens" at NRDC's Smarter Living portal for advice on avoiding pesticides and pests, picking the best seeds, prepping soil, and more.

Remember, eating fruits and vegetables makes your heart healthier and provides cancer-fighting benefits. So don’t let the risk of toxic chemicals scare you away, especially when they’re so easy to avoid. Be sure to include several servings of fruit and vegetables in your daily meals, even if you occasionally have to eat those on the high-pesticide list. It’s better than nothing.

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Paul McRandle edits NRDC's Smarter Living and Smarter Cities websites. He previously served as the deputy editor of National Geographic's Green Guide magazine, which won a Min Hottest Launch Award in 2008. He has spent much of the last decade encoura... READ MORE >
Dear Paul, Interesting article - I think a lot of people have the idea that organic fruits and vegetables do not have pesticides on them or no chemicals are used in their production. Actually organic products generally have far more chemicals used on them owing to the fact that "organic" chemicals do work as well as conventional chemicals. Bottom line, many people think organic means no chemicals - it just means different chemicals.
Dear Anonymous User, BS. Organic farming relies on techniques such as crop rotation, green manure, compost and biological pest control to maintain soil productivity and control pests on a farm. Organic farming excludes or strictly limits the use of manufactured fertilizers, pesticides (which include herbicides, insecticides and fungicides), plant growth regulators such as hormones, livestock antibiotics, food additives, and genetically modified organisms. Bottom line stop peddling mis-information.