Pesticide exposure: separating facts from fears

An advocacy group called Friends of the Earth has been publicizing the results of a new study demonstrating that when people switch from a regular diet to one containing only organic foods, their exposure to pesticides is reduced.

The study recruited four families from different corners of the country.  Each family ate a non-organic diet for six days and an all-organic diet for six days. The researchers found that the organic diet “rapidly and dramatically reduced exposure to pesticides.” 

That’s not terribly surprising.  In fact, it’s so unsurprising, it’s a little hard to imagine why the researchers felt the need to do this study.

The far more important question (not answered in this study) is: Is this something we need to worry about?

Relatively major but absolutely minor

In reporting their findings, the Friends of the Earth present the difference in exposure in relative terms. “Levels of all detected chemicals dropped an average of 60.5 percent with a range of 37 percent to 95 percent depending on the compound.”

But they don’t give us any information about the absolute levels of exposure.  This is at least as important as the relative exposure. Celery has 40 times as much sodium as cucumber. It’s still a low sodium food.

Did those higher levels of exposure pose any sort of threat? Or were they (as I suspect) well below the threshold of concern?

Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish

Secondly, the coverage repeatedly talks about the “pesticide levels in the bodies” of the subjects. But the study didn’t test the subjects’ blood or tissues. They tested their urine, which is where the body discards things it doesn’t want or need.  Furthermore, what they found in the urine were compounds formed when the pesticides were broken down by the liver.

In other words, what they found was evidence that the body’s detoxification systems were working exactly as they are supposed to, breaking down and excreting potentially harmful compounds. The pesticides these families were being exposed to by eating a non-organic diet were apparently being eliminated from their bodies.

So I have to ask once again: Is this really something that we need to worry about?

One of these things is not like the other

The organization points out that one of the pesticides monitored in this study is frequently linked to farmworker poisonings.  That’s a great argument for farmers using more care when working with agricultural chemicals (and that goes for synthetic as well as organic chemicals). But it doesn’t really have anything to do with risks that families might be exposed to by eating conventional produce.  And yet, by juxtaposing these two facts in the press release, it implies that eating non-organic foods increases your risk of chemical poisoning.  There is absolutely no data to support this implication.

Good news is no news?

Meanwhile, the press reports don’t mention that a third of the compounds they were testing for were undetectable in the urine samples after the non-organic diet. You have to wonder whether they were, perversely, somewhat disappointed by this.  They certainly didn’t seem very eager to publicize the fact that some of the most common pesticides used in conventional agriculture apparently pose little risk to eaters.

So, what’s the upshot of all this?

The Friends of the Earth concludes that “these results show that eating organic works.”  Works how, exactly? Yes, eating organic  reduces your exposure to certain (but not all) pesticides. But does it reduce your risk of disease or harm? I don’t see any evidence of that here.

This is Important. Let’s Get it Right

Lest you think I am pro-pesticide, or anti-organic, let me assure you I’m not. I’m just against this sort of sloppy communication and manipulative “science.”

Conventional farmers don’t use pesticides because they’re lazy, ignorant, or uncaring. They use them, as sparingly as they can get away with, in order to maximize yields and lower the cost of food.  If they can figure out a way to use less, they are eager to do so.

Organic farmers use pesticides and herbicides, too, by the way. Some of these organic pesticides are highly toxic to beneficial insects and, if mishandled, can be harmful to humans, as well.  But organic farmers are also working to increase yield and reduce the cost of their products. And pest control is part of that.

Instead of pitting organic growers (and eaters) against conventional, why not work together to make progress on all of these important fronts? Let’s use the best technology, the best practices and, yes, the best chemistry, to create a safer, more abundant, and more sustainable food supply.

To that end, let’s assess the risks and impacts of chemical use (both synthetic and organic). Let’s weigh the costs and benefits of various options. But let’s debate the issues on their scientific merits instead of resorting to sensational, misleading, and manipulative “research” and rhetoric.

This is not an us vs. them situation. We’re all us.

Quick Guide to Complementary Protein Sources

In this week’s Nutrition Diva podcast, I talk with protein researcher Douglas Paddon Jones about whether or not there’s any benefit to combining complementary plant-based protein sources at the same meal. Contrary to a lot of the conventional wisdom, which claims that it’s sufficient to get all of the essential amino acids over the course of a single day, Dr. Paddon Jones argues  that a meal-based approach to protein nutrition will enhance the ability to build and maintain lean muscle tissue.

This doesn’t mean you have to tally up and micro-manage each individual amino acid. The following chart shows how to choose meal components that will ensure complete proteins at a meal.

If you consume only plant-based proteins, you may also want to increase your total protein intake by 10-20% to compensate for the lower digestibility of these plant-based protein. 

The Recommended Daily Allowance for protein is 0.8 g per kg of body weight (or 0.36 g per pound). Strict vegetarians may want to aim for a minimum of 1 g per kg (or 0.45 g per pound).

These are these are minimum recommended intakes. Research suggests that there may be benefits to higher protein diets, especially for athletes, the elderly, those recovering from surgery or illness, or during weight loss. If you’re in any of these groups, you might want to aim for something closer to twice the recommended minimum.

 

What are the best and worst kinds of fruit?

In this week’s Nutrition Diva podcast, I debunked the myth that you should avoid certain types of fruit, either because they are higher in sugar or higher in fructose.   All fruit can be part of a healthy diet–especially if you are eating fruit in place of other less healthy choices. 

But if you’re curious to see how various types of fruit stack up in terms of total sugar content as well as fructose and glucose content, here’s a chart of some common fruits. You can click on any column to sort by that value.

Fruit (1 cup serving)Total Sugars (g)Fructose (g)Glucose (g)
Source: USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference
Raisins1085750
Dates, medjool864244
Figs, dried713437
Apricots, dried691643
Plums, dried (prunes)662244
Bananas281111
Grapes231211
Mangos2383
Tangerines2154
Cherries1879
Plums1658
Pineapple1643
Kiwi1687
Grapefruit1644
Blueberries1577
Apricots, fresh1414
Oranges1443
Cantaloupe1433
Honeydew1455
Pears1494
Peaches1323
Papaya1156
Apples1162
Nectarines1122
Watermelon1052
Strawberries743
Blackberries733
Raspberries532
Cranberries514

 

Which Appliances are Worth the Counter Space?

In my house, kitchen appliances live in one of two places: in the kitchen or in the basement. The ones in the kitchen are the ones that I use constantly. The ones in the basement are the ones that only come out once in a while.

My Constant Favorites

Blender

This lives right on the kitchen counter because I use it almost every day. I have a Vitamix which is no small investment, but this workhorse has served me well for years. I’m actually on my second Vitamix. After 15 years, I decided to retire my original, and Vitamix has a trade-in program that gave me a discount on my new purchase. There are less expensive options, such as the NutriBullet Blender–and the Vitamix is more power than you’d need for smoothies. However, its heavy duty parts and high powered motor can also turn whole wheat into flour, nuts into nut butter, and other tasks that might cause a lesser motor to wheeze.

 

Instant Pot Electronic Pressure Cooker


I hesitated before jumping on this particular bandwagon because I’d never used a pressure cooker before and didn’t particularly miss it. Turns out that was just because I didn’t know what I was missing. Instant Pot fans tend to be a bit cult-like, but I’ve totally drunk the Koolaid. I use it to hard-boil eggs (perfect every time!), make stock in 30 minutes instead of two hours, cook hard beans and steel cut oats to tender (but not mushy) perfection in 15 minutes, and countless soups, stews, and one-pot meals. There are many sites, cookbooks, and Instagram feeds dedicated to Instant Pot recipes, so inspiration and instruction is never more than a click away. Easily the best kitchen purchase I’ve made in ten years.

Listen to my podcast episode: 4 Reasons You Need a Pressure Cooker. Continue reading “Which Appliances are Worth the Counter Space?” >

This Probiotic Cereal Doesn’t Make Me Happy Inside

Probiotic foods continue to be one of the hottest food and nutrition trends. And now Kellogg’s has jumped on the bandwagon with a new probiotic cereal called Happy Inside. While this new offering is certainly on trend, I think they’ve missed the mark in a number of ways:

1. “Yogurty probiotic pieces” that are neither yogurty nor probiotic.

Don’t be fooled by the mention of “yogurt,” these are pieces of candy. They’re made of unnecessary ingredients like sugar, palm kernel oil, and Greek Yogurt Powder (which is heat-treated, killing any beneficial bacteria.)

2. Four kinds of added sugar, totaling 9 grams per serving

I’ve certainly seen worse, but it reminds me of General Mill’s “healthy” fail a few years ago with their high protein Cheerios, which added only a modest amount of protein but a whole lot of sugar. (What were they thinking?)

3. A single strain of probiotic bacteria

When it comes to live and active cultures, it’s just one lonely strain (Bifidobacterium lactis HN019) with a limited amount of research to back it up. Although HN019 may enhance immune function in the elderly, the strain otherwise has a small portfolio of effectiveness.

4. Plenty of marketing gloss

The cereal calls itself a 3-in-1 product because it contains fiber, prebiotics, and probiotics.  However, “prebiotic” and “fiber” are just two ways of saying the same thing.   (See also: What are prebiotics?)

The Bottom Line on Happy Inside

Rather than spending big bucks on this highly processed food, you can get more pre- and probiotic benefit at a lower cost with higher nutritional value.  For example, stir 1/3 cup of Swiss Muesli (I like this no-added-sugar brand from Familla) into 2/3 cup unsweetened kefir and refrigerate overnight for a gut-friendly breakfast without all the junk.

 

Thinking of cooking that romaine? Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Lettuce soup recipe on Epicurious.com

Like many of you, when the CDC issued the warning about romaine lettuce last week, I had a package of romaine hearts in my fridge. Even though I had already eaten one, with no ill effects, the CDC is very clear that the rest should be discarded–just in case.

For reasons explained by food safety expert Dr. Robert Brackett in this episode of the Nutrition Diva podcast, washing the lettuce is not enough to remove E. coli..  The only way to kill those bugs is to heat them up to at least 160 degrees Fahrenheit and hold them there for a while.

But, like you, I hate to waste food. And I remembered being intrigued last winter by some lettuce soup recipes. Wouldn’t cooking the lettuce thoroughly in a soup be a way to safely avoid throwing this (probably perfectly fine) lettuce away? And a chance to try a new recipe to boot?

When I sat down this morning to write this post, I intended to propose just that: Make soup from whatever romaine lettuce got stranded in your crisper drawer last week.  Fortunately, I decided to run that advice by an expert before publishing it. And I’m glad I did.

Dr. Brackett has once more come to our rescue, explaining why this might not be good advice:

“While it is true that ‘thorough’ cooking should kill E. coli…it depends on the physiological state the bug is in (i.e. phase of growth, individual cells versus “clumps”, etc) as well as where the cells are physically located (internalized in the lettuce, in the middle of a clump of leaves, etc). One would really need to validate the lethality of heating romaine before one could say it was ‘thorough’.

However, another reason why CDC recommends simply discarding all romaine, is that…one could be potentially be bringing E. coli into the kitchen and creating a cross-contamination situation (counters, refrigerator, utensils, etc), or even contaminating one’s hands (and perhaps inadvertently to mouth) and risk illness if they are handling the lettuce. “

If you do have some lettuce on hand, throwing it away really is the better part of wisdom. It’s also not a bad idea to give that crisper drawer a thorough cleaning. (Let’s be honest: this is probably long past due…). Finish up with a proper hand-washing and toss the dishtowel in the laundry. (Most of us don’t do that nearly often enough either.)

Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake that the source is identified quickly. Those sickened by the bug are not the only victims here. Outbreaks like this can have a devastating–and lasting–financial impact on growers and farm workers as well.

In next week’s Nutrition Diva podcast, I’ll be talking about a not-so-new technology that could potentially prevent the next outbreak.