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Opinion: Make food decisions with fact, not fear

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We all want to eat healthy food and keep our children safe from toxic substances, and simple lists and clean-versus-dirty shopping guides appeal to some consumers. But context matters.

Scientists thoroughly test thousands of substances, from arsenic to water, to determine how much of them would be toxic to humans. Some level of every substance is toxic to humans, but conversely, the human body can safely process a trace amount of almost anything without any risk to health.

In April, the Environmental Working Group, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the promotion of organic-only production methods, released its 25th annual “Dirty Dozen” list. This report utilizes U.S. Department of Agriculture data to identify the 12 fruits and vegetables that tested highest in pesticide residue. Regardless of the actual levels found, the EWG labels the top 12 each year as “dirty” foods and encourages consumers to avoid eating conventionally grown versions of those crops.

For this year, the EWG report identified strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes and sweet bell peppers for its “dirty” list. But just how “dirty” are these foods?

According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Service, a man could consume 5,080 large strawberries in one day without any effect, even if the strawberries had the highest pesticide residue recorded for strawberries by the USDA. Strawberries are delicious, but it would be pretty tough to eat that many.

For celery, the safe level for a man is 27,451 servings in a day. That’s a lot of celery. A child could consume 310 servings of spinach in a day without any adverse effect. How many kids do you know who could do that?

The true problem with the “Dirty Dozen” marketing ploy is that a peer-reviewed study showed that exposure to its messaging makes low-income consumers less likely to purchase any produce, either organically or conventionally grown. With only one in ten Americans currently eating enough fruits and vegetables, this marketing does far more harm than good, especially to lower-income Americans.

The bottom line is, eating more fruits and vegetables of any kind is far more beneficial to your diet than the potential harm of any minuscule residue they may carry – most of which washes off with a simple rinse anyway.

Listen to your mom and eat your fruits and veggies. And remember that food decisions should be made with facts, not fear.

Eric Bohl is director of public affairs for Missouri Farm Bureau in Columbia. He can be reached at publicaffairs@mofb.com.

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