5 July 2018

Science Says Yes to Eating Fruits and Vegetables

Amber Pankonin, M.S., R.D.

Nutrition Communications Consultant

As a registered dietitian and nutrition educator, I spend a lot of time addressing myths about food and nutrition. Today we have more consumers asking specific questions about where food comes from and how it is produced. Even though I often encourage these types of questions, activist organizations and documentaries that spread false messages about agricultural practices make my job much more complicated when I talk with consumers about getting enough fruits and vegetables in their diet.

Since the mid-90s, the U.S.-based Environmental Working Group has published a list known as the “Dirty Dozen.” This list contains 12 fruits and vegetables believed to contain the highest amount of pesticide residues (trace amounts). Strawberries, spinach and nectarines top the list followed by other popular favorites such as apples, tomatoes and potatoes. The “Dirty Dozen” encourages consumers to purchase organic varieties of these particular fruits and vegetables instead of those grown conventionally. Every year this list receives attention from the media and every year I find myself addressing consumer concerns because of it. The headlines about the “Dirty Dozen” and pesticide risk are often misleading and can easily plant seeds of doubt when it comes to consuming healthy fruits and vegetables.

The Clean Truth

What consumers might not understand is that even organic varieties of produce are often treated with organic pesticides. Scientists suggest that even if you purchase organic, this does not mean your fruits and vegetables will be pesticide-free.1 It is always a good practice to wash all produce whether it’s organic or not. Another myth is that organic produce is more nutritious compared to conventional produce. Many studies have shown that organic produce provides the same level of nutrition as conventional.2

Scientists suggest that even if you purchase organic, this does not mean your fruits and vegetables will be pesticide-free.

It’s also important to understand why pesticides are needed and why farmers use them. Without pesticides, farmers could lose the majority of their crop due to pests and diseases. Pesticides are toxic at prescribed doses only to the pests they are meant to target, which makes them a valuable tool for farmers. Another thing to consider is that all pesticides must go through extensive testing before farmers can use them. Regulatory agencies including the United States Environmental Protective Agency evaluate the safety of these pesticides.

Also, think about the last time you used insect repellent. Did you know that every time you apply insect repellent to avoid mosquito bites, you are using a pesticide? Insecticides are a type of pesticide that are meant to target small pests. I find the same people who question the use of pesticides in farming do not think twice about using insect repellent.

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

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, most of us are not consuming the recommended amount of at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines one serving of fruits and vegetables as 1 cup, which is about the size of a tennis ball.

When most people are struggling to meet the recommendations, it’s difficult to see messages that discourage intake, especially when we know that consumption of fruits and vegetables is associated with lowering risk for diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease.3 When considering if consuming produce is worth disease prevention, the answer is definitively yes. The evidence is clear that consuming fruits and vegetables in any form outweighs the possible risk of ingesting any trace pesticide residues that could be present.

Amber Pankonin is a registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant based in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.


1 Winter, CK., Katz, JM. 2011. Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels. Journal of Toxicology. 2011: 589674,doi:10.1155/2011/589674.
2 Dangour, AD., Dodhia SK., Hayter A., Allen, E., Lock,K. Uauy, R. Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Sept; 90(3):680–685,doi: 10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041.
3 Bazzano, LA., He, J., Ogden, L.G., 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, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Jul;76(1):93-9.

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