Dietitian’s Corner: What Makes Produce “Clean?” Understanding Pesticide Use and Safety

Washing red apples in a metal bowl with running water

Created by: By: Allison Kuhn, MS, RDN, LD

Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with The Little Clinic (inside select stores)

There’s no shortage of hot topics for food and nutrition today. One that comes up often is pesticide use on fruits and vegetables. Most people know that we need to eat more fruits and veggies for our health, but are the pesticides used to raise our produce safe?

How do we know for sure? There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding this issue, so let’s learn more about the science, philosophy and practice of growing produce in today’s world.

  1. A farm, the most natural place around? When you visualize how plants grow in nature, it’s fundamentally different from the practice of farming. In farming, we take a single crop and grow it on a large scale, all in one location. Wild plants tend to grow in smaller patches, surrounded by other diverse plants. When we grow a single fruit or vegetable, we make that plot of land much more vulnerable to pests without the wild ecosystem in place surrounding it. Wild onions can’t feed the world, so we need to keep our food safe and farms thriving. This is an important thought to consider when evaluating the safety of farming today and the need for pest control as part of it.
  2. Is safety all relative? We tend to think of things as good or bad, safe or unsafe. While this may be true in many situations, when we evaluate the safety of foods and the chemicals or ingredients that go into food, we have to think a bit differently. Take water, for example. Water is technically a chemical compound, composed of hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Water is essential for life and human survival. However, too much water can be bad for you – consider the case of an intense marathon runner who replenishes with water alone while losing sodium (another essential nutrient) through sweat. Pretty soon, their body will be out of balance! This is a good example of the thinking behind toxicology, the branch of science that evaluates pesticides, including natural ones used in organic farming. At a certain level of exposure, a pesticide can do harm. However, they’re only allowed to be used at a rate set well below any threshold of causing harm (generally hundreds of times lower) in an effort to ensure safety.
  3. What can you do? Even if you know that pesticides are highly tested and regulated, you may still have concern. The good news is that simply washing produce – at least 30 seconds under cool running water – can remove a majority of residual pesticides on the skins of fruits and vegetables. Peeling or scrubbing fruits and veggies can reduce them even further. Additionally, as produce is stored, pesticides tend to naturally degrade. Tests have shown that the use of produce washes, soap or other detergents is no more effective at reducing pesticide residues than water alone.