Pesticides in fruit and vegetables

Are they harmless — or is the truth that we don’t really know?
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  • Updated:10 Mar 2006

05.How to avoid pesticides

The foods most likely to contain pesticide residues are fresh fruit and vegetables.

corn, lettuce and strawberriesOf those tested for the 2003 Australian Total Dietary Survey, the products with the highest levels were lettuce and strawberries — if pesticides worry you, it’s worth putting them at the top of your organic shopping list.

Processed foods (such as tomato purée) generally have fewer pesticide residues because a combination of washing, blanching and cooking removes the majority of pesticide residues from vegetables and fruit.

If you’re concerned about pesticide residues, don’t cut down on fruit and vegies — the risk to your health from eating less of them would far outweigh any risks posed by possible pesticide exposure. Instead:

  • Peel. Pesticides are often formulated to resist being washed off easily (so as to survive rain showers). Peeling removes residues from pesticides that stay on the surface of fruit, but you’ll be throwing away valuable nutrients in the peel at the same time — the choice is yours. Some pesticides are systemic, which means they penetrate the flesh of the fruit or vegetable, so washing isn’t effective against these pesticide residues (though it’s a good idea to wash them anyway to remove dirt and potentially harmful bacteria). But it helps to throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce or cabbage.
  • Cook. Processing, including cooking, can break down some pesticide residues. Cooking can destroy some vitamins but it also improves the nutritional value of some vegetables (for example, carrots, tomatoes and sweet corn), allowing many of the nutrients to be better absorbed by your body.
  • Buy organic. While organic food can’t be guaranteed free of pesticide residues (see Go organic, below), Australian organic produce that’s been tested has been found to be either free of pesticides altogether or any residues were at very low levels.

Go organic

Organic food is grown without the use of artificial pesticides. While it’s not necessarily completely free of pesticide residues (some may have lingered in the soil from previous non-organic crops, for example), independent testing has consistently found much lower levels than in conventionally grown produce. And a recent study in the US confirmed that an organic diet there substantially reduces children’s exposure to pesticides from foods.

While there’s little evidence that organic food tastes better or is of higher nutritional value, organic farming is believed to be better for the environment than conventional agriculture.

Grow your own

Another way to be sure of just what has been added to your fruit and veg as part of the growing process is to grow your own.

If you don't have a yard large enough for fruit trees or a vegetable patch you can still grow small things such as herbs or tomatoes — even on a tiny balcony.


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