Pesticides are toxic substances used to kill weeds (herbicides), insects (insecticides), fungus (fungicides) and rodents (rodenticides). These pesticides are used almost everywhere –from agricultural fields to homes to public places.
While pesticides help control damage to plants caused by pests and increase food production worldwide, they pose significant risks, both directly and indirectly, to our health.
A 2007 study published in Canadian Family Physician reports positive associations between pesticide exposure and brain, breast, kidney, lung, ovarian, pancreatic, prostate and stomach cancers.
Another 2007 study published in the same journal links pesticide exposure to four chronic non-cancer health effects: dermatologic, neurologic, reproductive and genotoxic.
Exposure to pesticides may increase risk for Parkinson’s disease, according to a 2006 study published in the Annals of Neurology.
Also, a 2013 report by the European Food Safety Authority notes that exposure to pesticides can lead to leukemia in children and Parkinson’s disease.
Anyone who uses pesticides or is present when pesticides are sprayed is at a higher risk for dangerous exposure.
A 2015 report by the Environmental Working Group states that nearly two-thirds of the 3,015 produce samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2013 contained pesticides.
According to this report, the foods highest in pesticide loads were apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.
The foods containing the least amount of pesticides were avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruits, cantaloupes, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.
Given the health effects of pesticide exposure, it is important to take steps to avoid pesticide exposure. With a little effort, you can do wonders for your health as well as the environment.
Here are some simple tips and tricks to avoid pesticide residue in food.
1. Wash Fruits and Vegetables under Running Water
While growing fruits and vegetables, many farmers spray pesticides on the leaves and stems to protect the crop from damage. A considerable amount of pesticides also accumulate on the outer surface of the fruits and vegetables.
To remove the harmful residue and toxins, the best option is to wash your produce under running warm water before eating it. It is best to use warm water rather than very cold or hot water.
Make sure you don’t just quickly wash and wipe the produce as the pesticides do not simply dissolve in the water, it is the action of rubbing produce under water that helps remove the residue.
A 2012 report by the Department of Analytical Chemistry at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station shows that rinsing fruits and vegetables under tap water significantly reduced the residue of nine of the 12 pesticides examined across 14 commodities.
Fruits like grapes, apples, strawberries, guava, blueberries, plums, peaches and pears as well as vegetables like tomatoes, eggplant, green beans and okra can be cleaned properly using this method.
You should be thorough when washing these fruits and vegetables and, if required, opt for 2 or 3 washings before eating, as harmful chemicals can linger in crevices that are hard to wash.
In fact, you could use a vegetable brush to help srcub the produce thoroughly.
Along with raw fruits and vegetables, you need to thoroughly wash raw rice, legumes, beans and pulses 2 or 3 times before cooking.
2. Dry with Paper Towels
After you have washed the fruits and vegetables, dry them thoroughly. This helps remove any remaining residue sticking to the surface.
Instead of using your kitchen towel, use disposable paper towels as pesticide residue may collect on kitchen towels that aren’t washed right away and may get transferred to other foods, hands and dishes.
Paper towels are good for drying apples, strawberries, pears, guavas and tomatoes. For firm fruits and vegetables, such as melons and root vegetables, a little scrubbing may be required.
For lettuce and other types of salad leaves and green vegetables, use a salad spinner to remove excess fluid.
After drying fruits and vegetables, you can store them without any danger of spoiling them due to moisture.
3. Remove the Peel or Outer Layer
Remove the peels of fruits and vegetables, whever possible. Carrots, radishes, beetroot and potatoes, in particular, should be peeled to reduce the chances of eating harmful pesticides along with your food.
Through peeling, you can get rid of both systemic and pesticides that appear on the surface of the fruits and vegetables.
It is also an effective method for produce treated with wax (for instance, apples), as pesticide residue may be trapped underneath the wax.
Make sure to peel after washing the produce to prevent dirt and bacteria from transferring from the knife or peeler onto the fruit or vegetable. After peeling, wash again and then consume.
For leafy greens like lettuce, kale or cabbage, discard the outermost leaves from the head. Some may consider it to be wasteful, but the outer layers have more pesticides than the inner layers.
4. Blanching and Boiling
Blanching and boiling are two popular cooking techniques that can help remove pesticide and harmful chemicals from food.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology found that regularly subjecting foods to heat treatment during preparation and preservation can help reduce pesticides to a great extent.
Heat treatments including pasteurization, boiling, cooking and others (depending upon the nature of the food) help reduce pesticides due to evaporation and co-distillation.
Before cooking green vegetables, soak them in warm water for a while to get rid of any leftover residue. Before blanching, make sure to thoroughly pre-wash the vegetables and fruits.
When it comes to animal products, it is highly recommended to boil or cook properly to remove pesticide residue from the animal fat tissues.
Animal products often have high amounts of pesticide residue since animals feed on fodder, which is sprayed with pesticides. Also, when cooking chicken, mutton or beef, cut off the excess fat and skin.
Even milk should be boiled at elevated temperatures to destroy persistent pesticide residue.
5. Homemade Cleaning Spray
Many people prefer using cleaning sprays available in the market or mild soapy water to rinse their fruits and vegetables. But this is something you need to avoid at any cost.
Fruits and vegetables have minute pores and when exposed to dish soap or any other cleaning spray, the residue can get trapped in or absorbed through the pores. This is very difficult to rinse off.
What you can do is make your own homemade cleaning solution. Here are three options:
- Add ½ teaspoon of salt to a large bowl of water. Let the produce sit in the solution for a few minutes, then rinse with fresh water. Dry them thoroughly using paper towels.
- Fill a large bowl with water and add 1 teaspoon of white vinegar to it. Soak your fruits and vegetables in this solution for 10 minutes, then wash them under tap water. Finally, dry with paper towels.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of baking soda. Dilute this mixture with 1 cup of water and transfer it to a spray bottle. Spray this solution onto your produce, wait for a couple of minutes and wipe it off thoroughly using paper towels.
6. Eat Organic Produce
Buying organic and locally grown fruits and vegetables and in-season produce is another effective assurance of less exposure to harmful chemicals.
It is easy to buy organic or unsprayed locally grown produce from the market. You may have to spend a bit more money, but when it comes to your health and your dear ones, organic produce is the best.
A 2015 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives reports that more frequent consumption of organic produce was associated with lower urinary dialkyl phosphate, which is higher when exposed to pesticides.
Organic fruits and vegetables should also be washed thoroughly before consumption to get rid of any bacteria and other microorganisms that may have deposited on the surface during handling and transportation.
7. Plant Your Own Garden
To be 100 percent certain that you are eating pesticide-free fruits and vegetables, you can plant your own garden and grow your own fresh produce.
A small backyard garden or even terrace gardening can provide you with enough produce, if not year-round produce, for a family of four.
When you are engaged in gardening, you are aware of how you are producing the products and you can replace the need for pesticides and chemical fertilizers with organic materials.
In addition, gardening is a great hobby that has many health benefits. It can help calm your mind, improve your mood, strengthen your bones and muscles, and serve as a great family activity.
However, before consumption, make sure to wash them under running water to remove dust, dirt and other wind-blown contaminants that might have reached your garden.