The Truth About Pesticides and Mortality
Does eating organic fruits and vegetables make you live any longer than eating nonorganic foods? Here’s the actual science.
Eating a lot of fruits and vegetables lowers all-cause mortality. People who consume a wide variety of them are far less likely to suffer from various chronic diseases. And science figured this out long before organic produce was being mass consumed.
But Isn’t the Organic Stuff Free of Harmful Pesticides?
Organic fruits and veggies are supposed to be grown without the commonly used pesticides, but they can still contain some, albeit at a much lower frequency than conventional produce (1,2).
Perhaps more importantly, there’s no good evidence that the amount of pesticides in conventionally grown produce harms humans. According to the toxicologically based risk assessments performed, the amounts present are well below worrisome levels. And based on the available data, pesticide levels are rarely detected at a level that would be of health concern (2-4).
Fine, Produce is Good Regardless, but Isn’t Organic Even Better?
Let’s look at the receipts (a few interventional studies). The studies comparing organic vs. nonorganic fruits and vegetables largely failed to find significant differences between the evaluated endpoints, although they’ve all been relatively short-term (5-9).
Some fruits and veggies may contain higher levels of certain phytochemicals if organically grown, but those studies aren’t consistent. More importantly, no good evidence exists that it translates to superior health effects.
Observational studies – which are a weaker form of evidence and can only show associations, not causation – show some potentially positive associations (like higher fertility with organic consumption versus nonorganic), but these may be due to confounding variables related to lifestyle or diet that are unique to those folks who consume organic foods. In other words, people who are health-conscious enough to buy organic are probably doing other healthy things, like exercising.
A Recent Study—High Vs. Low Pesticide Residue and Mortality
While this study didn’t evaluate organic versus nonorganic fruits and vegetables, it did attempt to evaluate associations between high and low pesticide consumption and all-cause mortality (10).
The study found that the fruits and veggies frequently associated with having higher pesticide residues failed to produce the typically seen reduction in all-cause mortality risk seen with produce consumption after adjusting for other variables. Conversely, consumption of fruits and vegetables frequently associated with having lower pesticide residues did, in fact, have an inverse relationship with all-cause mortality.
The authors speculate that exposure to pesticides may offset the beneficial effects of eating fruit and vegetable on mortality. However, such a conclusion contradicts a large body of evidence showing an inverse relationship between fruit and vegetable intake and mortality that would’ve consisted largely of conventionally grown foods.
This is an incorrect and dangerous conclusion. It implies there’s no point in eating fruits and veggies unless they’re on the authors’ list of “low” pesticide residue produce. But there are several issues with this.
First, the authors didn’t measure the pesticide residues of the fruits and vegetables consumed. Rather, they merely categorized previously sampled individual fruits and vegetables and determined whether they had relatively high or low pesticide residues based on a rating system that included:
- How frequently pesticides were detected.
- If they were over the tolerance level (an indicator of whether the pesticide was applied appropriately or not).
- How often three or more pesticides were detected.
More importantly, all they ultimately found was a rich source of confounding evidence based on the self-reported consumption of fruits and vegetables in the high and low pesticide residue categories.
For example, in the high pesticide group, they had nutritional powerhouses (I’m being sarcastic) like raisins, apple sauce, and green beans. Yet, in the low pesticide group, they had foods like blueberries, broccoli, and cauliflower. Stop and think about how individuals self-reporting what they THINK are healthy food choices (raisins and apple sauce) versus those who are actually making healthy food choices. I’m certain you’ll notice a major difference in their overall health and lifestyle.
Interestingly, there are also data showing that in contrast to the results of this study, some foods deemed as having a high pesticide residue were individually found to be associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality in other studies.
Strawberries, for example, despite being listed as the most pesticide-laden food by these researchers, were inversely associated with all-cause mortality in another study (11). The same with peppers. Conversely, in that same study, grapefruit, despite being rated as having the lowest pesticide residue, was associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality.
Green leafy vegetables were also in the “high” pesticide category, yet they’ve also been associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality (12).
Considering how incongruent the authors’ conclusions are with other data, it’s obvious their proposed explanation is untenable.
How to Use This Info
Like your mom said, eat your fruits and vegetables! It lowers all-cause mortality… and it doesn’t matter if it’s organic or not.
If you get fresh produce, run it under the faucet and enjoy it, but don’t sweat whether it’s organic. (If you’re still worried, try this baking soda trick.) And don’t worry about eating only certain fruits and vegetables; enjoy a variety.
If you can afford it and prefer organic produce, go for it, but don’t be the douchebag at the family barbecue asking if grandma’s fruit salad is organic.
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Jara EA et al. “Safety levels for organophosphate pesticide residues on fruits, vegetables, and nuts.” International Journal of Food Contamination. 2019;6(6). Safety levels for organophosphate pesticide residues on fruits, vegetables, and nuts | Food Safety and Risk | Full Text
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