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Question: Is it dangerous to eat more fruits and vegetables because of the increased consumption of pesticides? Do I have to buy organic?

Answer: The effects of ingesting pesticides in the very small amounts present in vegetation are unknown. Bruce Ames, Ph.D., director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Center at the University of California-Berkeley, who has devoted his career to examining this question, believes these minute amounts present pose no risk at all.

He and other scientists in this field support this view because humans and other animals are exposed to small amounts of naturally occurring toxins with every mouthful of organically grown, natural food. The body normally breaks down self-produced metabolic wastes and naturally occurring carcinogens in foods, as well as pesticides, and excretes these harmful substances every minute. Since 99.99 percent of the potential carcinogenic chemicals consumed are naturally present in all food, reducing our exposure to the 0.01 percent that are synthetic will not reduce cancer rates.

These scientists argue that humans ingest thousands of natural chemicals that typically have a greater toxicity and are present at higher doses, compared to the very minute amount of pesticide residue that remains on food. Furthermore, animal studies establishing carcinogenic potential in synthetic chemicals are done at doses a thousand-fold higher than what is ingested in food. Ames argues a high percentage of all chemicals, natural or not, are potentially toxic in high doses—“the dose makes the poison”--and that there is no evidence of possible cancer hazards from the tiny chemical residue remaining on produce.

Others believe a slight risk may be present, though it may be difficult to prove. There certainly is a justifiable concern that some chemicals used have increased toxicity and are potentially harmful at lower doses than used in rodent experiments. No scientist believes that this means we should reduce consumption of vegetation, but many, myself included, believe it is prudent to reduce our exposure to the multiple toxic residues present in our food supply. I certainly advocate avoiding the skins of foods that are reported to have the most pesticide residue. And, of course, all fruits and vegetables should be washed before eating.

If you are concerned about pesticides and chemicals, keep in mind animal products, such as dairy, fish and beef, contain the most toxic pesticide residues.

Rank Produce


1 Strawberries 189
T2 Green and red bell peppers 155
T2 Spinach 155
4 Cherries (USA) 154
5 Peaches 150
6 Cantaloupe (Mexico) 142
7 Celery 129
8 Apples 124
9 Apricots 123
10 Green Beans 122
11 Grapes (Chile) 118
12 Cucumbers 117

Because cows and steers eat large amounts of tainted feed, certain pesticides and dangerous chemicals are found in higher concentrations in animal foods. Dioxin, which is predominantly found in fatty meats and dairy fat, for example, is one of the most potent toxins linked to several cancers in humans, including lymphomas. By centering your diet on unrefined plant foods you will automatically reduce your exposure to the most dangerous chemicals.

Comparing the pesticide residue on produce, obtained from records of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov), the most contaminated foods, ranked from highest to lowest (200 is
most toxic)
are show in the chart to the right.

These twelve foods account for more than half of the total pesticide exposure. They are the key foods to make sure you purchase organic.

It makes common sense to peel fruits, if possible, and not to eat potato skins, unless you are able to purchase them pesticide free. Remove and discard the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage, if not organically grown, and other surfaces that cannot be peeled can be washed with soap and water, or a commercial vegetable wash. Washing with plain water removes 25-50 percent of the pesticide residue. I personally avoid strawberries completely, unless we purchase organic--my children often eat frozen organic strawberries from the health food store.

Keep in mind, every study done to date on the consumption of food and its relation to cancer has shown that the more fruits and vegetables people eat, the less cancer and heart disease they have. All these studies were done on people eating conventionally grown, not organic produce. So, clearly, the benefit of conventional produce outweighs any hypothetical risk.

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