site search by freefind advanced

Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a healthy choice. But the pesticides in fruits and veggies is the opposite of healthy.

Eating lots of fruits and vegetables is a healthy choice. But the pesticides in fruits and veggies is the opposite of healthy.

FDA sampling has been shrinking over the years, dropping about 25 percent from a decade ago from more than 7,900 samples to 5,989 samples tested in its latest report. The U.S. Department of Agriculture also does annual pesticide residue testing, but looks at more than 10,000 samples

The USDA’s most recent sampling results reported pesticide residues were found on 85% of the food tested. This includes 97 percent of apples, 83 percent of grapes, 60 percent of tomatoes, 57 percent of mushrooms.  

It’s not just fresh produce that contains pesticide residues. The USDA found 50% of the fruit jams and jellies contained pesticides.

Also, pesticide residues on food are on the rise. The FDA, which also samples food for pesticide residues, found them on about 50 percent of domestic food and 43 percent of imported foods. In 2010, about 37 percent of domestic and 28 percent of imported foods were found with residues.

And I need to point out something out. These pesticide residues are found on fruits and vegetables AFTER they’ve been washed under cold running water for approximately 15-20 seconds.

Pesticides Used to Grow Fruits and Vegetables

It’s nearly impossible to list the pesticides found in all types of vegetables and fruits. There are over 1000 different pesticides that are used to grow crops.

Plus there are many pesticides registered for use on the same crop. They include combinations of insecticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Also, the specific pesticides used can vary with different growing seasons, different pest problems and the region or country where the crop was grown.

Sometimes pesticides end up on crops unintentionally when it drifts from other fields. Plants can also absorb pesticides that linger in soil for years after application.

A good example of this is DDT, which was banned in the U.S in 1972. DDT takes a long time to breakdown in the soil (half-life is 50 years). Because of this it is still a common pesticide residue found on produce, even organic fruits and vegetables.

The FDA tests for 696 pesticides that may be found as residues. Residues of 207 different pesticides were actually found in the samples analyzed in its most recent report.

The most frequently detected were Imidacloprid, Thiophanate-methyl, Boscalid, Chlorpyrifos, Acetamiprid, Azoxystrobin, Tebuconazole and Cypermethrin.

As you can see chlorpyrifos, which is banned for household use because it’s so dangerous, was the fourth-most often pesticide found in foods out of the 207 different pesticides detected. And eleven of the 207 pesticides had not been detected in previous sampling.

Examples of Pesticide Residues

Typically, more than one type of pesticide is found on produce. In fact, the USDA reported that more than one type of pesticide was found on 73% of the produce. One sample of strawberries, imported from Mexico, contained residues of 20 pesticides.

Here’s a sampling of the results in the report published in 2017.

Grapes

  • contained residues of 23 different pesticides (9 insecticides and 13 fungicides)
  • 6% of the peppers sampled had residues of 9 different pesticides.

Strawberries

  • contained residues of 38 different pesticides (15 insecticides, 17 fungicides).  
  • 11% of the strawberry samples had 9 different pesticide residues.

Tomatoes

  • contained residues of 27 different pesticides (8 insecticides and 5 fungicides). 
  • 2.4% contained 9 different pesticides

You can use the widget below to investigate the pesticides found on different fruits and vegetables by the USDA.

Harmful Effects of Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables

There are many health issues linked to pesticide exposure. Generally, insecticides and fungicides are more toxic to humans than herbicides (2,4D and Atrazine are huge exceptions to this).

Many insecticides are neurotoxins and act on insects and humans in much the same way. Because they’re toxic to your nervous system, exposure to them is linked to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

Fungicides are often applied near harvest time to prevent mold during transport.  They are classified as endocrine disruptors and carcinogens. Exposure to fungicides has also been linked to hypothyroidism and breast cancer.

Some herbicides, such as atrazine, may cause cancer, reproductive or developmental effects, and endocrine system effects.

Chlorpyrifos, used on corn, cranberries, Brussels sprouts, and broccoli, can have harmful neurodevelopmental effects on fetuses and on young children. Research also ties the chemical to attention deficit problems, tremors, and autism.

2,4-D is an endocrine disrupter that interferes with thyroid hormones. It’s also linked to risk factors for acute myocardial infarction and type-2 diabetes and poor semen quality. Cancer risks include non-Hodgkin lymphoma in people and malignant lymphoma and bladder cancer in dogs.

And here’s something to ponder - Neither the FDA nor the USDA has tested food for glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup). Even though it’s the world's most widely used herbicide, and testing by academics, consumer groups and other countries has shown residues of this weed killer in food.

Glyphosate exposure can affect your health in a bunch of different ways. It is also an endocrine disruptor, it damages DNA, causes cell death and kills the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

Plus, it contributes to cancers of the liver, kidney, bladder/urinary and thyroid. If that list isn’t scary enough, glyphosate also messes with your body’s ability to breakdown the toxins you are exposed to everyday.


In 2010 the President’s Cancer Panel report  Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now had this to say “Nearly 1,400 pesticides have been registered by EPA for agricultural and non-agricultural use. Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to brain/central nervous system, breast, colon, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, kidney, testicular, and stomach cancers, as well as Hodgkin and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and soft tissue sarcoma… Approximately 40 chemicals classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as known, probable, or possible human carcinogens, are used in EPA-registered pesticides now on the market.”

Imported Versus Domestic Produce

So how do the levels of pesticides in fruits and vegetables grown domestically compare with imported produce? Is domestic produce safer than imported?

Again, not a simple answer. It depends on the country where the fruits and vegetables come from and the types of produce. Some countries have different safe exposure levels and some pesticides that were banned in the U.S. are still used in other countries.

While imported produce is supposed to meet U.S. pesticide residue guidelines, only about 1% of all imports are tested by the FDA. Kinda scary considering one half of the fruits and a quarter of the vegetables that we consume are imported.

Remember,  the FDA found pesticide residues in 50% of the domestic and 43% of the imported food samples that were tested.  The big difference between domestic and imported produce is the violation rate. The domestic violation rate was 1.8 % and the import violation rate was 9.4 %.

So although there were pesticides found on a greater percentage of domestic produce, the unsafe levels of pesticides was 3 to 4 times higher for imported produce. The produce with higher violation rates include Dragon fruit/juice, mushrooms, cilantro, and cabbage.

The most recent FDA pesticide monitoring results found that for domestic produce:

  • 62% of vegetables had pesticide residues
  •  4% of these residues were above the safe limit set for exposure
  • 82% of fruits had pesticide residues 
  • 2% were above the safe limit set for exposure

For imported produce:

  • 47% of vegetables had pesticide residues
  • 8% of these residues were above the safe limit set for exposure
  • 51% of fruits had pesticide residues 
  • 9% were above the safe limit set for exposure

My Approach to Organic Produce

Everything I eat is not organic. The two reasons why are availability and the fact that I like to shop at farm stands during the summer. It’s tough to find organic produce at farm stands.

You might be wondering why the higher cost of organic produce is not a factor for me. It’s certainly not because I’m rich! It's because I prioritize how I spend my money.

Although you can’t buy good health, you can buy healthy food and non toxic products to protect your health. That’s my priority.

However, there are some things that I won’t eat unless they’re organic. Apples are an example.

And not just whole apples, but any products made from apples, such as apple sauce and juice. So what do I have against non organic apples?

The Environmental  Working Group publishes a list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables based on the number of pesticides found on them. Apples are always on the list.

Other produce that I avoid unless it’s organic include bell peppers, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, spinach, grapes and cherry tomatoes. I always peel anything that’s not organic.

EWG's Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group uses the USDA and FDA pesticide residue reports to compile their list of the fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues. Here’s their current list of the top 12.

Fruits

Strawberries
Nectarines
Apples
Grapes
Peaches
Cherries
Pears

Vegetables

Spinach
Tomatoes
Celery
Potatoes
Sweet Bell Peppers

If you’re considering switching to organic foods, the dirty dozen is a great place to start. I guarantee that once you try an organic apple you’ll be hooked.

Removing Pesticide Residues From Fruits and Vegetables

Before I talk about the methods you can use to remove pesticides from fruits and vegetables I want to point something out. All the fruits and vegetables that the USDA samples for pesticide residues are washed first under running water, just like you would do at home. In other words, the residues they found were STILL on the produce AFTER washing.

Also, as part of its pesticide sampling program, the FDA conducts a Total Diet Study. For this study they wash, peel and cook about a 1,000 samples of a variety of food and then measure the pesticide residues.

In their most recent study they found six different pesticides in 10%-15% of the samples. I’ve read several studies that also show that washing and cooking will reduce but not completely remove pesticide residues.

How to Remove Pesticides From Fruits and Vegetables

You might be wondering whether it’s worth buying some type of produce wash to remove pesticide residues. Save your money (to buy more organic produce). A handful of studies have determined that washing your fruits and vegetables under running water is just as effective. Here are some steps for reducing pesticide residues from produce.

Steps

  • Wash produce under running water (more effective than soaking)
  • Scrub thick-skinned produce with a vegetable brush.
  • Peel what you can (peaches, cucs, squash etc.)
  • Dry with cloth or paper towels
  • Discard outer layers of any leafy vegetable before washing.

You can also reduce surface pesticide residues with baking soda. A study published in 2017 found that soaking apples in baking soda and water and then rinsing the produce removed all surface pesticide residues.

The researchers stated that “Most pesticides are not stable at an alkaline pH, which breaks down the compounds and helps to wash them away.”  That suggests that the soak probably also works for other types of produce.

BUT, the soak did not remove pesticide residues that had entered the peel, namely the fungicide thiabendazole. Fungicides are designed to enter produce to prevent spoilage. Peeling fruits and veggies are the only way to remove them. And of course organic is the best way to go!

Baking Soda Soak

  • Dissolve ¼ of baking soda in ½ gallon of warm water. Soak produce for 15 minutes, then rinse in fresh water.

I threw a lot of information at you in this article, so let me bottom-line it. To reduce your exposure to pesticides on fruits and vegetables buy as much organic produce as is possible. Focus especially on the “Dirty Dozen”. And be diligent about washing and peeling your non organic produce.

Link back from this page to the Home Page