If I were to give you a food sprayed with poison, would you eat it? Due to pesticide use, fruits and vegetables are beginning to spark this very question. Does that mean you should buy everything labeled organic? Not necessarily.
In truth, eating five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day greatly lowers your risk for major causes of death including stroke, diabetes and various cancers. Unfortunately, less than one-third of American college students consume the minimum servings. If you do, the last thing you want to hear is that while fruits and vegetables prevent disease, the pesticides used while they grow may cause it, too.
An agricultural pesticide is any substance meant to prevent, control or kill a living organism, with the purpose of maximizing crop yield. The concern is that, while the benefits of produce still far outweigh the cons of pesticide use, these chemicals are often toxic and used in large quantities. 40 percent of our most used pesticides are classified as likely carcinogens, many of which can promote nervous system and reproductive system damage, birth defects and cancer. On top of that, the U.S. accounts for one-fourth of the world’s weight in pesticides, averaging 900 million pounds used per year on crops.
As you are not a mold or rodent, these chemicals in trace amounts are probably fine. On the other hand, you also eat around 2,000 pounds of food each year, increasing your total exposure.
One way to avoid these chemicals is to buy organic foods, meaning those produced without common pesticides. The problem is that labeling a food “organic”, whether it is or not, is expensive. Certification alone for a grower can cost up to $2,000 a year.
To your benefit, this means that just because a food does not say organic, doesn’t mean it isn’t. Your farmers market folk, for example, probably can’t afford certification, but may have organic standards. To find out, ask them in person. But when it comes to grocery stores, the only way to know is by calling the food producer.
Luckily, there are easier ways to avoid these chemicals than asking around. The first is to know “the dirty dozen”: 12 foods ranked for the highest pesticide content. These are apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines and grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, domestic blueberries, lettuce and kale.
On a positive note, there is also a list of foods known as the “clean 15”. These include onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, domestic cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms.
Better yet, grow your foods at home and you will know it’s organic. Unless you’re like me –– I like to water my apple tree with laundry detergent. It keeps the bugs away.
Of course, many students don’t own a yard and most of us still face this funny problem where the grocery store is divided into the organic section, and what we can afford. In this case, refrain from the dirty dozen, buy the clean 15 and consider these washing tips.
It is true that pesticides can penetrate the peels of many foods, but washing still helps. What you should know is that most rinse off well with water and scrubbing. Don’t waste your money on anti-pesticide washes, a tiny bit of detergent works just as well. And make sure the detergent is gone!
Now, if you don’t grocery shop, cook, go to the market or garden, our very own dining commons is a likely place to find produce with safer farming practices and high in nutrients. In fact, with six sustainability interns and another 10 for nutrition, the dining commons may be a great stop for your health.
Look out for next week’s column, which will bust the freshman 15 myth and show you why the UC Davis food programs can enhance your nutrition, both on and off campus.
THERESA RICHARDSON posts all of her sources and articles on Facebook. Just google The Freshman Fifteen and her e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org.