Are you wondering if you need to be eating organic foods and how do non-organic foods impact your health? Or do you want to eat more organic foods but worry about the increased cost? If so, read on for the bottom line on eating organic, what it means for your health and how to reduce your exposure to pesticides without spending a fortune.
In this post I’ll talk about:
- Controversies around safe levels of pesticide exposure
- Negative health effects linked to pesticide
- Benefits of organic food
- How to use the Environmental Working Group’s Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen list to reduce your pesticide exposure
What does “organic” actually mean?
According to the Soil Association, “organic” means:
- Fewer pesticides (and only from natural ingredients such as citronella and clove oil)
- No antibiotics, artificial additives or preservatives (1).
Conventional (non-organic) foods can include up to 300 different pesticides. Pesticides protect crops against damage caused by insects, weeds, fungi and other pests. It’s estimated that without pesticides 40% of crops would fail, which means less food and more expense to consumers (2).
Is there a safe level of consumption of pesticides?
The acceptable daily intake (ADI) for pesticides is established through animal testing and is based on the highest dose where no recognisable harmful effects are observed; the No Observable Adverse Effect Level (NOAEL) (3).
However, the health effects from pesticides can occur cumulatively after years of low-level exposure rather than immediate exposure. And the health effects may occur with exposure to multiple pesticides rather than just one type. This means that the studies on pesticide safety are difficult to transfer to real-life human exposure because we ingest multiple pesticides over a long period of time, the effects of which are more difficult to study.
Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of pesticides used, due to pesticide-resistant weeds and GMO crops. This means we are at risk of even higher levels of pesticide exposure (4). For example, the use of glyphosate (a herbicide used worldwide) has increased by 400% in the last 20 years in the UK alone (5).
The jury is still out on exactly how safe pesticides are, even at low levels!
Health impact of pesticides
The impact of pesticides on human health is a controversial topic Research studies concluding that pesticides are safe are often funded by companies commercializing pesticides and are therefore biased in favour of their use. Whereas studies that find negative health impacts of pesticides (at levels lower than the regulatory levels) tend to be funded by independent scientists. (6). I’m more inclined to listen to independent scientists.
Here is a brief look at some of the negative health impacts linked to pesticide exposure:
- Low-level exposure caused an increase in anxiety among farm workers (7) due to the effect on serotonin and acetylcholine
- Glyphosate reduces gut bacteria in mice and increases anxiety-like behaviour (8)
- Pesticides are endocrine disruptors, as they interfere with human hormones, affecting reproduction and foetal development (9)
- Glyphosate is classified as a “probable carcinogen” (10). There is still ongoing debate around this
- Glyphosate can chelate (bind to) zinc, cobalt and manganese, reducing the absorption of important nutrients (4)
- Pesticides are linked to poor neurological development and behavioural problems in children. Babies, infants and children are particularly vulnerable to pesticides as their nervous systems are still developing (11)
- Neurotoxic symptoms of pesticide toxicity include headaches, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, chest tightness, and difficulty breathing as well as symptoms suggesting cognitive (confusion, difficulty concentrating), motor (weakness, tremor), and sensory (numbness, tingling, visual disturbance) dysfunction. (12)
Benefits of organic food
Apart from the reduced exposure to pesticides, there are other health benefits to eating organic. For example, organic fruits and vegetables have higher levels of anti-oxidants which are important for protecting the body from damaging free radicals and inflammation.
Organic milk, meat and dairy have higher levels of anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats and reduced levels of pro-inflammatory saturated fats.
Conventional foods contain more cadmium which, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) is carcinogenic to humans (13).
The Clean 15 and the Dirty Dozen
The Environmental Working Group have put together a handy guide to make it easier to shop for fruits and vegetables without having to purchase absolutely everything organic (which can get expensive).
Their Dirty Dozen list contains produce with the highest levels of pesticides. Buy organic if you want to reduce your exposure to toxic chemicals.
Their Clean 15 list contains produce with the lowest levels of pesticide residue. You can buy conventional non-organic foods from this list, as your exposure to toxic chemicals is low.
What’s on the Dirty Dozen list?
Sweet Bell Peppers
What’s on the Clean Fifteen list?
Frozen Sweet Peas
You can download a copy of the guide on the EWG website. The guide is updated yearly so it is worth subscribing to their mailing list to stay up to date with the latest news.
Other ways to reduce pesticide exposure
Washing your fruits and vegetables is essential. This study showed that soaking apples in water mixed with baking soda for 12 minutes, reduced the levels of surface pesticides to lower than the detection limit. The solution used was 10mg of baking soda per litre of water (15), so if using this technique, add one litre of water to a large bowl, add 2 teaspoons of baking soda and soak your fruit or vegetables for 12 minutes. If this isn’t an option, rinsing under running tap water removes some surface-level pesticides.
Peeling fruits and vegetables where appropriate also reduces your exposure to pesticides. Fruits such as bananas and avocados will have lower levels of pesticides, as the skin is discarded. Potatoes are on the Dirty Dozen list. So even though we tend to peel potatoes before cooking, it’s still worth buying organic as they have some of the highest levels of pesticides.
Cooking some foods (for example, rice) can reduce pesticide levels, however, I have not found studies on the reduction of pesticides when cooking vegetables (14).
And finally, growing your own vegetables will reduce your exposure to pesticides, providing you grow them organically!
We don’t know the long-term health effects of low-level pesticide exposure. But we do know that they are linked to poor neurological development in children, anxiety and behaviour problems, hormone disruption and are currently being researched for their carcinogenicity (cancer-causing) potential.
It’s a wise move to reduce our exposure to pesticides based on the research we have so far. Using the EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifty list is a helpful tool to use to know which foods to buy organic and which ones we can justifiably eat as non-organic.
When buying non-organic, always wash produce thoroughly, peel where you can, cook and if at all possible, grow your own. These tips and strategies will help to reduce your exposure to pesticides and potentially ward off undesirable health outcomes in the long term.
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- Soil Association. 2018. What is organic?. [ONLINE] Available at https://www.soilassociation.org/organic-living/whatisorganic/. [Accessed 16 August 2018].
- European Crop Protection. 2018. Why Pesticides?.http://www.ecpa.eu/with-or-without. [Accessed 16 August 2018].
- European Crop Protection. 2014. Pesticide Use and Food Safetyhttp://www.ecpa.eu/sites/default/files/ECPA_ResiduesLeafletUK_Web_01.pdf. [Accessed 16 August 2018].
- Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P., Maipas, S., Kotampasi, C., Stamatis, P. and Hens, L., 2016. Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture. Frontiers in Public Health, [online] 4(July), pp.1–8. Available at: <http://journal.frontiersin.org/Article/10.3389/fpubh.2016.00148/abstract>.
- Soil Association. 2018. Not in our breadhttps://www.soilassociation.org/our-campaigns/not-in-our-bread/. [Accessed 16 August 2018].
- Mesnage, R. and Antoniou, M.N., 2017. Facts and Fallacies in the Debate on Glyphosate Toxicity. Frontiers in Public Health, [online] 5(November), pp.1–7. Available at: <http://journal.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fpubh.2017.00316/full>.
- Harrison, V. and Mackenzie Ross, S., 2016. Anxiety and depression following cumulative low-level exposure to organophosphate pesticides. Environmental Research, [online] 151, pp.528–536. Available at: <http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2016.08.020>.
- Aitbali, Y., Ba-M’hamed, S., Elhidar, N., Nafis, A., Soraa, N. and Bennis, M., 2018. Glyphosate based- herbicide exposure affects gut microbiota, anxiety and depression-like behaviors in mice. Neurotoxicology and Teratology, 67(March), pp.44–49.
- Mnif, W., Hassine, A.I.H., Bouaziz, A., Bartegi, A., Thomas, O. and Roig, B., 2011. Effect of endocrine disruptor pesticides: A review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 8(6), pp.2265–2303.
- Clausing, P., Robinson, C. and Burtscher-Schaden, H., 2018. Pesticides and public health: An analysis of the regulatory approach to assessing the carcinogenicity of glyphosate in the European Union. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, 72(8), pp.668–672.
- Mitchell, M.J. and King, M.R., 2014. Pesticide Exposure and Child Neurodevelopment: Summary and Implications. Workplace Health Safety. 60(1), pp.1–23.
- Kamel, F. and Hoppin, J.A., 2004. Association of pesticide exposure with neurologic dysfunction and disease. Environmental Health Perspectives, 112(9), pp.950–958.
- Barański, M., Rempelos, L., Iversen, P.O. and Leifert, C., 2017. Effects of organic food consumption on human health; the jury is still out! Food & Nutrition Research, [online] 61(1), p.1287333. Available at: <https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/16546628.2017.1287333>.
- Shoeibi, S., Amirahmadi, M., Yazdanpanah, H., Pirali-Hamedani, M., Pakzad, S.R. and Kobarfard, F., 2011. Effect of cooking process on the residues of three carbamate pesticides in rice. Iranian Journal of Pharmaceutical Research, 10(1), pp.119–126.
- Yang, T., Doherty, J., Zhao, B., Kinchla, A.J., Clark, J.M. and He, L., 2017. Effectiveness of Commercial and Homemade Washing Agents in Removing Pesticide Residues on and in Apples. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 65(44), pp.9744–9752.