Should I be worried about pesticides in my food?


Living in a developed country where food production needs to be efficient in order to produce enough food, and enough profit to keep the farmer in business, means that in most cases it is deemed necessary to protect the crop from pests, weeds and mould, mildew etc. The question is though, are these pesticides (a broad term covering insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, synergists and ‘other’) found in the fruits and vegetables that we eat as residues, are they harmful and can we remove them?


Organic foods obviously have lower levels of pesticide use though ‘organic’ or naturally occurring chemicals can still be used on them (and are). Waterways, rain and soil can maintain pesticide residues and so, in a way, nothing is totally free of pesticides, they are a fact of modern living.


In Australia, Food Standards Australia & New Zealand (FSANZ) and the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) set Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) for pesticide levels in fruit and


vegetables. Then, every three years an Australian Total Diet Survey is done where 88 foods are tested for residues to ensure they are staying below the MRLs. States and territories also conduct their own surveillance surveys. For example, the Sydney Markets Residue Survey tested 6,900 samples of fruit and vegetables from 1989 to 2005 and found that most (97.5%) complied with the MRLs. Only 171 samples exceeded acceptable levels. However, we also import about 10% of our total fruits and veggies but only 5% are tested by the Australian Quarantine and Information Service (AQIS).


Are pesticides dangerous to health? There is some evidence for links to Alzheimers disease and Parkinsons disease.


Some organophosphates can lead to a significantly higher risk of breast, thyroid and ovarian cancer. (The study that showed this was on more than 30,000 female spouses of pesticide applicators so where as it is


definitely significant we must assume that their exposure would have been much higher than for us simply eating the vegetables or fruits grown in areas where organophosphates are used). There is also a possible link to prostate, lung and liver cancers.


So is there cause for concern? Certainly, there is a lower risk to health if you can consume food without pesticide residues. Buying organic foods or growing your own without pesticides is desirable, but just not practical or affordable for the vast majority of the population.




The health risks of reducing your fruit and vegetable intake in order to avoid pesticides, or to reduce the variety of foods that you choose is far higher. We know that already a huge percentage of Australians do not consume enough fruits and vegetables for good health. And, we consistently see better


health outcomes in those who do eat a wide variety and quantity of fruits and vegetables. So, eating your two fruit and five vegetable servings per day is still a very valuable habit.


How can we marry these two ideals – plenty of fruit and veg. but not many pesticides?


One strategy is to thoroughly wash/scrub and where appropriate to peel your fruits and vegetables. No special detergent is needed, although soaking in bicarb. soda supposedly removes more pesticides from the surface of the item. Really, a good wash in water is enough to provide some reduction. Washing removes between 10 and 82% of pesticides from the surface, and it depends not on the water solubility of the pesticide but on the type of fruit/vegetable. In a study done in India looking at pesticide residues left on eggplant, cauliflower, and okra after washing, residues of organophosphates (a type of insecticide) were reduced by 77% for eggplant, 74% for cauliflower, and 50% for okra when washed.


Peeling is a two edged sword. Valuable fibre as well as many nutrients are found in the skin of some fruits and veggies, so to remove the skin can reduce their nutritional value.


Pesticides are not just on the surface though, some are systemic and are found within the fruit/vegetable. Cooking or even blanching removes some pesticides and so we have several ways to reduce the impact on our bodies.


· Buy organic or spray free where possible

· Grow your own and don’t use pesticides

· Wash your fruit and vegetables well

· Peel if you’re worried

· Cook/blanch.



Friends of the Earth conducted an analysis of Australian food surveys from 2000-2011 and compiled lists of the produce most and least likely to contain pesticides in or on them. Admittedly this analysis is now 10 years old and may not reflect the current situation.


Fruits and veggies most likely to contain pesticides, in Australia, are (highest to lowest):

Apples, pears, strawberries, grapes, lettuce, nectarines, peaches, tomatoes, apricots, carrots, plums and green beans.


Those least likely to contain pesticides are (lowest to highest): Avocado, sweetcorn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen peas, onion, asparagus, mango, paw paw, kiwi fruit, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe melon and sweet potato.


So there are ways that we can reduce the impact of pesticides in food on our bodies. We should be aware thatAustralia does have some good systems in place to control and monitor pesticide use. We should not be scared to keep eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as they are such an important determinant of good health.


So, choose well, start a garden, wash it, peel it or cook it but eat up your fruits and veggies!







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