As if we did not already have enough to worry about, here is yet another concern for us to ponder: Are pesticides in our food supply a threat to our health? Should every floret in our fridge and every tuber in our cellar be organic? When we begin to answer these questions, we are likely to venture into the realm between science and personal belief systems. Our reasoning is not completely unsound: pesticides are chemicals, and chemicals are not natural, therefore what is not natural is harmful to our bodies. But the question is, do the foods we eat contain pesticides in amounts that are harmful to our health? Another consideration is that most of the foods we consume contain natural chemicals (antioxidants being a case in point), which are actually beneficial to our health and potentially preventative of cardiac disease and cancer. So now we realize that there is a distinction between ‘good’ (antioxidants) and ‘bad’ (pesticide) chemicals. Let us continue to deepen our confusion by reading the musings of chemist Joe Schwarcz, who addresses everything from pesticides in food to other anxiety-provoking topics such as the plastic fumes emitted by your every day water bottle. However, well-intentioned Dr. Schwarcz does attempt to calm us down by giving us perspective on what to worry about, and what counts as only a drop in the bucket in terms of adverse chemical effects on our bodies over time.
As dietitians, we are responsible for providing the most accurate, honest, and well-researched information on the topic of food safety, which includes giving some type of recommendation on the precautions to take when buying fresh produce. Scientific evidence to date yields mixed results, since study design is hampered and flawed by the fact that we cannot ethically overdose one group with pesticides to see what effects emerge, while the other group receives a placebo. Therefore, we are left with studies of persons who develop diseases, and whom we ask in a survey-type fashion, “do you believe pesticide in food may have led to the development of your current disease?” ($50 says you can guess what they may have answered).
Perhaps, in this case, it is preferable to side with personal belief system over science: although over 90% of our food supply contains pesticide levels well below the maximum amount, and organic foods are often grown with the aid of pesticides (albeit approved by the organic licensing bodies, and lower in concentration that conventionally produced foods) and hail from foreign, exotic places around the world (think carbon foot print), personal choice, cost, availability, and taste and visual appeal may be better tools to guide our choices.
What is my personal practice? I buy local, fresh, farm-grown produce from the Farmer’s Market and don’t look back. In the summer, I usually receive the bounties of fresh veggies from Noni’s Garden (the photo is of a cucumber blossom in her garden). Of course, for reasons of practicality, I supplement the rest from the butcher shops, local produce stands, and grocery stores.
Speaking of the latter, please stay tuned for my rants about Whole Foods and Cosco (I shop at both sites, by the way), who are, on initial encounter, opposite in business model philosophy, yet dining at the same table of the multinational food conglomerate.