Are your fruit and vegetables really as good for you as you think?
-Sep 3, Caroline Blight, Nutrition -
This month is organic September and the UK’s Soil Association are promoting food as it should be – from the farm to your fork. Are you worried about pesticides on your fruit and vegetables? We have decided to investigate and separate fact from fiction when it comes to our five a day.
You’re feeling smug because you’ve rinsed your strawberries and tomatoes to take on that picnic in advance so they are clean and pesticide-free.
And thanks to the fact that you peeled the cucumber in the salad you’re sure that you’ve got a fresh, toxin-free spread without needing to shell out for the slightly more expensive organic produce.
Just washing, even scrubbing or peeling, your fresh goods is simply not enough to eliminate the toxins which they picked up while growing.
“Peeling and washing does not get rid of many modern pesticides as they are made to get into every part of a plant – inside every leaf, stalk or fruit,” explains Gemma Court from The Soil Association.
“Of course, there are also sometimes pesticides in food you can’t peel like milk and bread.”
Toxins are more than skin deep
As they grow, plants absorb pesticides and residues linger on fruit and vegetable skins all the way to your kitchen, even after you wash them.
As they grow, plants absorb pesticides into the very fabric of their being, they don’t just sit on the skin. Cleaning produce removes dirt, traces of human handling and reduces some pesticide levels — but not all of them.
…and even below the ground they get through
Some people think that only leafy or above ground fruits and vegetables are a pesticide risk as they can be sprayed. But root veggies can still be soaking up chemicals from the soil they are growing in. “A major investigation by the Soil Association last year found that the number of active pesticide ingredients applied to potatoes in the UK has increased by six times in the last four decades,” explains Gemma.
Anyone for a pesticide cocktail?
While the UK currently follows EU rules, and these are some of the strictest in the world, the approved levels of pesticides are authorised for individual chemicals.
But more than one pesticide can be used on a single crop. “Multiple active ingredients are applied to different crops, so people eat them as mixtures and cocktails of chemicals, the effects of which are not known,” explains Gemma.
Recent research found that the number of pesticide toxic ingredients applied to British crops has increased by between 6 and 18 times in the past four decades.
“An investigation by the Soil Association used government figures to look at pesticide use on three main British crops – wheat, potatoes and onions – and found that the increases in toxic ingredients applied to these crops range from 480% to 1,700%. New scientific evidence from around the world shows that very low doses of pesticides, well below official ‘safety’ levels, pose a significant risk to public health from pesticides in our food.”
Pesticides kill nutrients too
It’s not just bugs, fungus and disease which are killed off by pesticides either. The nutritional content of food actually differs between organic and non-organic foods.
A landmark scientific paper in the ‘British Journal of Nutrition’ in 2016, by a global team of scientists led by Newcastle University, concluded that organically produced milk differs substantially from conventional milk.
Organic milk contains significantly higher concentrations of total omega-3 fatty acids, including over 50% more of the nutritionally desirable Very Long Chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA and DHA).
More recently, an international research project involving scientists from the US, UK, Australia and Denmark found that organic milk has 62% more omega-3 than non-organic milk, and organic milk has 17% more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) than non-organic.
The 2016 study also found that organic dairy products (milk, butter, yogurt and cheese) contain slightly higher positive concentrations of iron, vitamin E and some carotenoids.
“Organic dairy has other benefits too: the animals are only given antibiotics when they are sick, not routinely; organic cows never eat GM feed; and organic farms also use far fewer pesticides, and have more wildlife,” adds Gemma. Organic meat is also much more nutritious. “Eating organic beef lowers negative intakes of omega-6, while increasing consumption of beneficial omega-3, and conjugated linoleic acid(CLA), another valuable, heart-healthy fatty acid. Scientists found that organically produced meat contains significantly higher concentrations of nutritionally desirable, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids and lower levels of two undesirable saturated fatty acids – myristic acid and palmitic acid.” And since so many of us are deficient in omega-3, the more we can access through our food the better.
Food miles mean unknown pesticides
The food we find in our shops is flown in from all over the world. And how it was grown and what it was sprayed with is not a factor in whether it’s allowed to be sold in the UK. “Different countries can have different priorities, so some countries will ban things the EU allows, and allow things the EU bans” confirms Gemma. In a recent study looking at pesticides found on British crops many, or more, pesticides are found in imported food.
Organic food is more sustainable
Organic standards put animal welfare first. As well as ensuring that all animals are genuinely free range, organic standards cover living conditions, food quality, tight restrictions on the use of antibiotics, as well as rules on transport and slaughter.
These standards mean that animals raised in organic systems enjoy the very highest welfare standards of farmed animals.
In addition, organic farms support around 50% more wildlife than non-organic farms and are the best currently available practical model we have to address climate-friendly food production.
This is because organic farming doesn’t rely on oil-based fertilisers and pesticides and also can store higher levels of carbon in the soil.