Debate on the Dirty Dozen
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
Q: A national newspaper had a headline story about pesticides, fruits and vegetables. What do you think about their Dirty Dozen list? — DRJ, Greenville
A: I cringe every year when an advocacy group issues their list of dirty dozen. For that matter, I get upset when I see any information in the media that might dissuade Americans — who do not eat enough fruits eat vegetables for health — from eating them. There are risks and benefits for almost every food decision we make. In my opinion, based on the available science, the benefits of eating all fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks for most children and adults.
There is no single best diet for everyone on the planet, but the one strategy for healthy eating that all eating plans have in common is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you are small like me and can enjoy only 1,200 calories a day to maintain weight, it’s great that I can enjoy 1½ cups of vegetables and a cup of fruit every day plus over the course of the week I can have 3½ cups more of starchy vegetables. These not only give me great nutrients to help manage my blood pressure and cholesterol, but also fill me up, manage my weight and taste great. If your size, metabolism and physical activity allow, you might get even more servings.
I am all for encouraging researchers, policy makers, regulators, farmers, food processors, home gardeners and anyone else who has a hand in making our food systems healthier to use less and/or find alternatives for pesticides. Doing so will not only benefit the environment but us too. In the meantime, if you are eating fresh produce, Just Wash It. Reduce and eliminate residues by washing with large amounts of cold or warm water and scrubbing with a brush, if needed. Do not use soap. Nor do you need fancy produce washing solutions. Throw away outer leaves of leafy vegetables like kale, lettuce and cabbage.
Processed shouldn’t be a “dirty word.” Unfortunately, surveys show that many Americans think frozen fruits and vegetables are less healthy than fresh. That just isn’t so. I have personally watched produce immediately frozen or canned after picking. I have also looked at tired “fresh” produce that has travelled thousand of miles, not properly store, losing its nutrients with every mile. Canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables, preferably without added sugar, fat and sauces, are both affordable and healthy. Please note that all forms of fruits and vegetables have phytochemicals that may act as antioxidants, protect and regenerate essential nutrients, and/or work to deactivate cancer-causing substances. Studies show eating a diet rich in phytochemicals protects against cancer, effects of aging, heart and diseases.
The advocacy group known as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published this media attention list for more than 20 years. In this case, the repetition of the message has influenced the produce purchasing decisions of millions of Americans. The group cautions consumers to avoid conventional forms of the fruits and vegetables on their Dirty Dozen and they purchase organic forms.
If I thought buying organic was worth the extra price, I would. But for me, it is not. On those rare days when the organic is “on sale” and the same or lower price than the conventional, I will buy it. For some fruits and vegetables, the taste can be slightly better. There’s a great paper in the Journal of Toxicology by two food scientists from the University of California that explains why you should not be discouraged from eating the fruits and vegetables listed as the Dirty Dozen. The paper is a bit technical but some of my readers would be interested in reading it. See it at https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jt/2011/589674
They looked at the research methods used by the advocacy group and thought it lacked scientific credibility. The researchers did some original research and concluded that (1) exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities pose negligible risks to consumers, and (2) substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks.
There has been an on-going debate in the science world about any differences in nutritional value between conventionally and organically grown produce. In a very credible 2017 review of the literature, the conclusion remains that the jury is still out on the effects of organic food consumption on human health. The authors did acknowledge that studies are beginning to show that there may be some measurable differences in the amounts of nutrients, pesticide residues and risk for chronic disease. However, it’s not known if the differences are enough to impact human health. The scientists agree that consuming organic produce should not be equated with eating pesticide-free produce. If you choose to reduce your exposure to pesticides that would be better than choosing not to eat them at all.
To their credit, the advocacy group also listed the Clean Fifteen this year. They include avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, frozen sweet peas, onions, papaya, eggplant, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushroom and honey dew melon. This year’s dirty dozen includes strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and hot pepper.
It is certainly possible to have a healthy diet without the produce on their list. If you choose to avoid those foods you might benefit from a consultation with a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who will with you create meal plans that include the nutrients you need, using foods that meet your health and enjoyment in food goals and are affordable. As for my family, I can promise you, there will be a potato on our dinner table tonight.
Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.