31 August 2020

Pesticide Misinformation Discourages Much Needed Produce Consumption

Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RDN, FAND

Food and Nutrition Consultant

The health benefits of adequate fruit and vegetable consumption are well documented, including reducing the risk of the world’s top causes of death (heart disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer) and, with better health, arguably improving the quality of life. Yet the number of adults worldwide consuming recommended amounts of these healthy foods is alarmingly low. Unfounded concerns and fears about pesticide residues on fresh produce contribute to reduced fruit and vegetable consumption among consumers, putting them at risk for actual health problems instead.

“I’m particularly concerned about research that shows when low-income consumers are exposed to negative messages about pesticide residues, they buy and consume less produce,” says Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder/president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Carmichael, Calif., USA. “These fear-based messages are counter-productive to promoting public health … Research [shows] that people who consume the most fruits and vegetables [have] the lowest risk of dying from any cause.[1]

Health Benefits of Fruits and Vegetables

The 12 families of vegetable plants and six categories of fruit have a vast and diverse matrix of plant compounds that benefit health. Besides their vitamins, minerals, fiber, and macronutrients , fruits and vegetables supply thousands of phytonutrients that function as antioxidants, phytoestrogens, anti-inflammatory agents and more.

A systematic research review made it clear that current recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake support a lower risk globally of leading non-communicable diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, some digestive diseases, some types of cancer and stroke) that are linked to lower fruit and vegetable intakes.[2] Following fruit and vegetable recommendations may also enhance quality of life due to improved mental and cognitive health, hypertension and immune function.[3],[4],[5]

For all of these reasons, it’s no wonder national and international authorities, including the World Health Organization, emphasize the importance of eating plenty of vegetables and fruits daily.[6]  The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the United States, for example, recommends healthy eating patterns with an equivalent to 2½ cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruits daily for those consuming 2000 calories daily[7]; the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate recommends that people fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables.[8]

Yet many consumers are not meeting fruit and vegetable guidelines[9],[10] despite their ranking vegetables and fruits as number one on a list of “healthiest” foods.[11] In fact, a 2019 survey of 78 countries reported that only about half of adults eat the recommended intake of five portions a day (400 g).5 Even fewer (18 percent) individuals 15 years of age or older in 28 low- and middle-income countries consume the recommended amounts.6

Barriers to Produce Consumption

While pesticide residues are not among the primary barriers to produce consumption as taste, time constraints and cost are,[12] confusion and fear regarding conventionally grown produce associated with pesticides have been reported.[13],[14] This research finds that publication of “watch lists” about fruits and vegetables containing pesticide residues discourages much needed consumption of these healthy foods.

“The headlines about [such lists] and pesticide risk are often misleading and can easily plant seeds of doubt when it comes to consuming healthy fruits and vegetables,” notes Amber Pankonin, RD, nutrition communications consultant in Lincoln, Neb., USA.

Case in point, Yancui Huang, MS, and colleagues, Center for Nutrition Research at the Illinois Institute of Technology, looked at the impact of such lists and related negative messages. They found that naming specific fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues shifted low-income study participants toward “less likely” to purchase any type of fresh produce.[15]

“It is clear that low-income shoppers are hearing messages about pesticide residues, fruits and vegetables,” they state. “It is also clear that the content and how the information is presented could negatively impact overall [produce] purchasing and intake in low-income populations.”15

Huang and colleagues also found that many people misperceive organic produce as healthier than conventionally grown produce.12,15,[16] Even though numerous studies have shown that conventionally-grown produce is nutritionally comparable,[17] this perception negatively influences people who cannot purchase organic produce due to lack of accessibility, budget constraints or other barriers.

Ironically, “the most frequently detected pesticides from watch lists pose negligible risks to consumers, and the substitution of organic forms would not appreciably impact consumer risk,” according to Carl K. Winter, PhD, former vice chair and extension food toxicologist, Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California-Davis, USA.[18]

Low Risk of Pesticide Residues

To clarify another common consumer misunderstanding:  in truth, the method of crop production – conventional or organic — is not an indicator of pesticide use or the presence of pesticide residues.

Whether farmers engage in conventional or organic farming practices – or both — they use forms of pesticides to protect their crops. Organic farming uses a variety of protective methods, including the use of naturally-derived pesticides such as soaps, lime sulfur and hydrogen peroxide, meant for organic food production. So, purchasing organic does not mean fruits and vegetables will be pesticide-free. For both types of farming, regulations and label instructions for pesticide use help ensure that these products are used safely and effectively for crop production.

Moreover, the presence of pesticide residues doesn’t equate to risk. These residues are measured in parts per billion, so residues on food are very low if present at all. A typical residue could correspond to a few drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Regulators set very strict limits on pesticide residues.[19] They consider what level of residues can be safely consumed daily over the course of a lifetime, then reduce it by a factor of at least 100, building in a huge safety margin. Systems around the world are in place to monitor that residues are within safety limits. Hundreds of thousands of samples are analyzed for residues year after year. Testing shows that virtually all foods meet safety standards. For example, the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) latest monitoring report (2017) noted that more than half of 88,000 samples in the EU were free of detectable residues, 42 percent had residues within legal limits and only 4 percent exceeded those limits (which were destroyed).[20] In the United States (2017), none of about 6,100 produce samples contained residues above tolerance levels.[21]

Based on the EFSA report noted above, the European Union concluded that “the probability of European citizens being exposed to pesticide residue levels that could lead to negative health outcomes is low.”20 A recent Danish study reached a similar conclusion.[22] Realistically, a person would have to eat thousands of a specific fruit or vegetable in a single day to come close to exceeding the safety limit, for example, 28,000 strawberries.[23]

An added note: Whether purchased or home-grown – and whether organically or conventionally grown – rinsing fresh produce well to remove any debris is always recommended. This practice also reduces any miniscule pesticide residue on surfaces of fresh produce.

Produce Benefits Far Outweigh Risks

Recommendations to increase vegetable and fruit consumption for improved health and lower risk of major chronic diseases are founded on solid, scientific data. Risks for many of the leading health conditions are consistently lower among people who consume greater amounts of fruits and vegetables. These benefits are shown in reduced mortality and potentially an improved quality of life.

“Consumers should feel confident when they purchase fruits and vegetables, whether organically or conventionally grown, and feed them to their families,” notes Winter. “Those singled out as ‘dirty’ based upon arbitrary and methodologically unsound approaches can and should be consumed without stress or fear.”

“When most people are struggling to meet [dietary] recommendations, it’s difficult to see messages that discourage intake, especially when we know that consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lowering [the] risk for diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease,”[24] adds Pankonin.

The bottom line is that pesticides, prudently used as indicated by regulation and label instructions, help protect crops and the production of plentiful fruits and vegetables.  Every daily eating pattern should include plenty of these healthy foods. Their benefits far outweigh any potential and very minimal risks from pesticide residues. Daily consumption of a variety of fruits and vegetables, no matter how they are produced, is one of the best dietary strategies for promoting and maintaining good health.

Roberta L. Duyff, MS, RDN, FAND, is a food and nutrition consultant who wrote the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide (fifth edition 2017).

[1] Wang X et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption and mortality from all causes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer: systematic review and dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. BMJ 2014 Jul 29;349:g4490.

[2] Yip CSC, Chan W, Fielding R. The associations of fruit and vegetable intakes with burden of diseases: a systematic review of meta-analyses. J Acad Nutr Diet 2019;119:464-481.

[3] Mao X, Chen C, Xun P, Daviglus ML et al. Intake of vegetables and fruits through young adulthood is associated with better cognitive function in midlife in the US general population. J Nutr 2019;149:1424-1433.

[4] Tuck NJ, Farrow C, Thomas JM. Assessing the effects of vegetable consumption on the psychological health of healthy adults: a systematic review of prospective research. Am J Clin Nutr 2019;110:196-211.

[5] Gehlich KH, Beller J, Lange-Asschenfeldt B, Kocher W et al. Fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with improved mental and cognitive health in older adults from non-Western developing countries. Public Health Nutr 2019;22:689-696.

[6] Herforth A, Arimond M, Alvarez-Sanchez C, Coates J et al. A global review of food-based dietary guidelines. Adv Nutr 2019;10:590-605.

[7] U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015. Available at http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/2015/guidelines/

[9] Frank SM, Webster J, McKenzie B, Geldsetzer P et al. Consumption of fruits and vegetables among individuals 15 years and older in 28 low- and middle-income countries. J Nutr 2019;149:1252-1259.

[10] World Health Organization: Healthy Diet. Fact Sheet No. 394. Geneva, Switzerland; 2015.

[11] Lusk JL. Consumer beliefs about healthy foods and diets. PLoS One 2019;14:e0223098.

[12] Pinho MGM, Mackenbach JD, Charreire H, Oppert JM et al. Exploring the relationship between perceived barriers to healthy eating and dietary behaviours in European adults. Eur J Nutr 2018;57:1761-1770.

[13] Rodman SO, Palmer AM, Zachary DA, Hopkins LC, Surkan PJ. “They just say organic food is healthier”: perceptions of healthy food among supermarket shoppers in Southwest Baltimore. Cult Agric Food Environ. 2014;36(2):83–92.

[14] Williams P, Hammitt J. A comparison of organic and conventional fresh produce buyers in the Boston area. Risk Anal. 2000;20(5):735–746.

[15] Huang Y, Edirisinghe I, Burton-Freeman BM. Low-income shoppers and fruit and vegetables: what do they think? Nutr Today:2016;51(5):242-250.

[16] Hughner S, Mcdonagh P, Prothero A, Shultz CJ II, Stanton J. Who are organic food consumers? A compilation and review of why people purchase organic food. J Consum Behav. 2007;6:94–110.

[17] Dangour AD, Dodhia SK, Hayter A, Allen E, Lock K. Uauy R. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. Am J Clin Nutr Sept; 90(3):680–685,doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041.

[18] Winter, CK. ‘Dirty Dozen’ list contaminated with non-science, June 5, 2018.   https://pesticidefacts.org/perspectives/dirty-dozen-list-contaminated-with-non-science/

[19] Reeves WR, McGuire MK, Stokes M, Vicini JL. Assessing the safety of pesticides in food: how current regulations protect human health. Adv Nutr 2019;10:80-88.

[20] European Food Safety Authority. The 2017 European Union report on pesticide residues in food. EFSA Journal; John Wiley and Sons Ltd; 2019.

[21] US Food and Drug Administration: Pesticide residue monitoring program fiscal year 2017 pesticide report. Washington, D.C.; 2019.

[22] Jensen BH, Petersen A, Petersen PB, Oulsen ME, Nielsen E, Christensen T, Fagt S, Trolle E, Andersen JH. Pesticide residues in food on the Danish Market. Results from the period 2012-2017. Copenhagen; National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark; 2019.

[23] Refers to the European Union’s non-observable effect levels for a typical pesticide.

[24] Bazzano LA, He J, Ogden LG, Loria CM, Vupputuri S, Myers L, Whelton PK. Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of cardiovascular disease in US adults: the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Epidemiologic Follow-up Study. Am J Clin Nutr Jul;76(1):93-9.

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