The Best Way to Wash Fruit and Vegetables

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How might we reduce our exposure to pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables? What about staying away from imported produce? Well, it turns out domestic produce may be even worse, dispelling the notion that imported fruits and vegetables pose greater potential health risks to consumers.

Buying organic dramatically reduces dietary exposure to pesticides, but it does not eliminate the potential risk. Pesticide residues are detectable in about one in ten organic crop samples, due to cross-contamination from neighboring fields, the continued presence of very persistent pesticides like DDT in the soil, and accidental or fraudulent use.

By choosing organic, one hopes to shift exposures from a range of uncertain risk to more of a range of negligible risk, but even if all we had to eat were the most pesticide-laden of conventional produce, there is a clear consensus in the scientific community that the health benefits from consuming fruits and vegetables outweigh any potential risks from pesticide residues. And we can easily reduce whatever risk there is by rinsing our fruits and vegetables under running water.

There are, however, a plethora of products alleged by advertisers to reduce fruit and produce pesticide residues more effectively than water and touted to concerned consumers. For example, Procter & Gamble introduced a fruit and vegetable wash. As part of the introduction, T.G.I. Friday's jumped on board bragging on their menus that the cheese and bacon puddles they call potato skins were first washed with the new product. After all, it was proclaimed proven to be 98% more effective than water in removing pesticides.

So researchers put it to the test and it did no better than plain tap water.

Shortly thereafter Procter & Gamble discontinued the product, but numerous others took its place claiming their vegetable washes are three, four, five or even ten times more effective than water, to which a researcher replied, "That's mathematically impossible." If water removes 50%, you can't take off ten times more than 50%. They actually found water removed up to 80% of pesticide residues like the fungicide, Captan, for example. So, for veggie washes to brag they are three, four, five, ten times better than water is indeed mathematically questionable.

Other fruit and vegetable washes have since been put to the test. Researchers compared FIT Fruit & Vegetable Wash, Organiclean, Vegi-Clean, and dishwashing soap to just rinsing in plain tap water. 196 samples of lettuce, strawberries, and tomatoes were tested, and researchers found little or no difference between just rinsing with tap water compared to any of the veggie washes (or the dish soap). They all just seemed like a waste of money. The researchers concluded that just the mechanical action of rubbing the produce under tap water seemed to do it, and that using detergents or fruit and vegetable washes do not enhance the removal of pesticide residues from produce above that of just rinsing with tap water alone.

That may not be saying much, though. Captan appears to be the exception. When plain water was tried against a half dozen other pesticides, less than half the residues were removed.

Fingernail polish works better, but the goal is to end up with a less toxic, not a more toxic tomato.

We need a straightforward, plausible, and safe method for enhanced pesticide removal. Is there anything we can add to the water to boost its pesticide-stripping abilities? Check out my video, How to Make Your Own Fruit & Vegetable Wash.

If you soak potatoes in water, between about 2% to 13% of the pesticides are removed, but a 5% acetic acid solution removes up to 100%. What's that? Plain white vinegar. But 5% is full strength.

What about diluted vinegar? Diluted vinegar only seemed marginally better than tap water for removing pesticide residues. Using full strength vinegar would get expensive, though. Thankfully there's something cheaper that works even better: salt water.

A 10% salt solution appears to work as good or better than full-strength vinegar. To make a 10% salt solution you just have to mix up about one-part salt to nine-parts water (though make sure to rinse all of the salt off before eating!).

There's not much you can do for the pesticides in animal products, though. The top sources of some pesticides are fruits and vegetables; but for other pesticides, it's dairy, eggs, and meat because the chemicals build up in fat. What do you do about pesticides in animal products? Hard boiling eggs appears to destroy more pesticides that scrambling, but for the pesticides that build up in the fat in fish or chicken, cooking can sometimes increase pesticide levels that obviously can't just wash off. In fact, washing meat, poultry, or eggs is considered one of the top ten dangerous food safety mistakes.

For more on organic foods, see:

The most important reason to wash produce is to reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Ironically, the food poisoning viruses may be found in the pesticides themselves. Check out my video Norovirus Food Poisoning from Pesticides.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Image Credit: Sally Plank / Flickr. This image has been modified.

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How Contaminated Are Our Children?

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In a study highlighted in my video, California Childen Are Contaminated, researchers analyzed the diets of California children ages two through seven to determine the cancer and non-cancer health effects from food contaminant exposures. It turns out food may be the primary route of exposure to toxic heavy metals, persistent pollutants, and pesticides. "Though food-borne toxic contaminants are a concern for all ages, they are of greatest concern for children, who are disproportionately impacted because they're still developing and have greater intake of food and fluids relative to their weight. Pediatric problems that have been linked to preventable environmental toxin exposures include cancer, asthma, lead poisoning, neurobehavioral disorders, learning and developmental disabilities, and birth defects."

The good news is that changing one's diet can change one's exposure. Quoting from the study, "A diet high in fish and animal products, for example, results in greater exposure to persistent pollutants like DDT and dioxins and heavy metals than does a plant-based diet because these compounds bioaccumulate up the food chain." Plants are at the bottom of the food chain. The sample of California kids, however, was not eating a plant-based diet. Cancer benchmark levels were exceeded by all 364 children for arsenic, the banned pesticide dieldrin, a metabolite of DDT called DDE, and dioxins.

Children exceeded safety levels by a greater margin than adults. This is especially of concern for children because all of these compounds are suspected endocrine disruptors and thus may impact normal development. Cancer risk ratios were exceeded by over a factor of 100 for both arsenic and dioxins.

Which foods were the worse? For preschoolers, the number one food source of arsenic was poultry, though for their parents, it was tuna. The number one source of lead was dairy, and for mercury it was seafood. And the number one source of the banned pesticides and dioxins was dairy. (See Preventing Parkinson's Disease With Diet.)

The researchers also recommended children should eat lower quantities of chips, cereal, crackers, and other crispy carbs to reduce acrylamide intake.

The California study didn't split up the groups by gender, but a similar study in Europe found that men had higher levels of some of these pollutants than women. For example, levels of the banned pesticide chlordane were higher in men, but women who never breastfed were right up there alongside men, with the lowest levels found in women who breastfed over 12 months. Therefore, it is likely that the lactation-related reduction in blood pollutant levels partly explains the lower body burdens among women compared with men. So cows can lower their levels by giving some to us, then we can pass it along to our children.

What non-cancer effects might some of these pollutants have? They can affect our immune system. Studies clearly demonstrate the "ability of dioxins and related compounds to have a long-lasting and deleterious impact on immune function." This manifests as increased incidences of respiratory infections, ear infections, cough, and sore throat. At first, most of the data was for during infancy, but now we have follow-up studies showing that the immunosuppressive effects of these toxins may persist into early childhood, so we should try to reduce our exposure as much as possible. Because these pollutants accumulate in animal fat, consuming a plant-based diet-decreasing meat, dairy, and fish consumption-may reduce exposure for children and adults alike.

These findings should come as no surprise to those who saw my video Pollutants in California Breast Tissue. For an overview see CDC Report on Environmental Chemical Exposure and President's Cancer Panel Report on Environmental Risk.

Pollutant exposure may affect the ability to have children in the first place (Male Fertility and Diet and Meat Hormones & Female Infertility). Such a delay, though, may allow one an opportunity to reduce one's toxic burden through dietary change (Hair Testing for Mercury Before Considering Pregnancy and How Long to Detox From Fish Before Pregnancy?).

During pregnancy, pollutants can be transferred directly (DDT in Umbilical Cord Blood), and after pregnancy through breastfeeding (The Wrong Way to Detox). Once our kids are contaminated, How Fast Can Children Detoxify from PCBs? The chemicals have implications for older children too: Protein, Puberty, and Pollutants.

Seafood is not the only source of toxic heavy metals. See:

Videos on primary food sources of other industrial pollutants include:

There are some things we can eat, though, to counteract some of the toxins:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death,More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Kevin Krejci / Flickr

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Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies

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In my video Preventing Childhood Allergies, I noted a study in Japan that found higher maternal intake of meat during pregnancy was significantly associated with about three times the odds of both suspected and physician-diagnosed eczema. The researchers suggest that certain components of meat may affect the fetal immune system. But what about the moms, themselves? A plant-based diet may also help alleviate allergies in adults. See Say No to Drugs by Saying Yes to More Plants and Preventing Allergies in Adulthood.

Seasonal allergies have exploded in Japan in the past few decades, starting with the first reported case in 1964 and now affecting millions every year. We've seen a rising prevalence of allergic diseases around the industrialized world in past decades, but perhaps nothing quite this dramatic.

Some have suggested that profound changes in the Japanese diet may have played a role. Over the latter half of the century total meat, fish, and milk intake rose hundreds of percent in Japan, so researchers decided to look into dietary meat and fat intake and the prevalence of these seasonal pollen allergies. No association with overall fat, but "higher meat intake was significantly associated with an increased prevalence."

Saturated fat wasn't associated with increased prevalence either, so what other constituents in meat may be to blame? The researchers considered the cooked meat carcinogens, the heterocyclic amines, the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and the nitrosamines.

A new review, highlighted in my video, Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors and Allergies, however, raised an intriguing possibility. There's a class of industrial pollutants called alkylphenols, recognized as common toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals that tend to accumulate in the human body and may be associated with allergic diseases. A variety of studies have shown how they may exacerbate allergen-induced inflammation, "suggesting that alkylphenol exposure may influence the onset, progression, and severity of allergic diseases." These toxic xenoestrogens can be found in human breast milk, in our body fat, in our urine, in our bloodstream, and even in the umbilical cord blood going to our babies. How did it get there? Through contaminated food.

It all goes back to a famous study about the reduction of penis size and testosterone levels in alligators living in a contaminated environment. I don't know what you do for a day job, but these researchers observed that a population of juvenile alligators living on one lake in Florida exhibited a "significantly smaller penis size" and lower blood concentrations of testosterone compared to animals on some different lake. The most important difference between the two lakes was that Lake Stubby was fed by relatively polluted waters. They attributed the "short penis phenomenon" to estrogen-mimicking (xenoestrogenic) environmental metabolites of DDT that still pollute our Earth. This seminal work introduced the concept of endocrine disruptors. Environmental xenoestrogens might result in feminization of exposed male animals. And that's just the shriveled tip of the iceberg.

Since then, endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been implicated in the dramatic rise over the last 50 years of diseases like breast cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer, diabetes, obesity, and fertility (such as dropping normal sperm counts), genital birth defects such as penile malformations, preterm birth, neurobehavioral disorders in children linked to thyroid disruption, and earlier breast development in young girls. Because genes do not change fast enough to explain these increases, environmental causes must be involved. Since our greatest exposure to the environment is through our gut, it's no surprise that our greatest exposure to these endocrine-disrupting chemicals is through diet.

To find out which foods may contain these alkylphenol endocrine disruptors, check out my video Dietary Sources of Alkylphenol Endocrine Disruptors.

More on endocrine disruptors in:

A different class of chemicals has been found to be associated with smaller penis size in humans. See Chicken Consumption and the Feminization of Male Genitalia.

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videoshere and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Mark Freeth / Flickr

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How Long to Avoid Fish Before Conception?

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Mothers' increased consumption of fish before and during pregnancy leads to increased exposure to both mercury and the long-chain omega 3 DHA. Mercury may negatively affect brain development in one's unborn baby, whereas DHA may stimulate brain development. However, the negative effect of mercury appears to outweigh the beneficial effect of DHA for most species of fish (see Mercury vs. Omega-3s for Brain Development).

Unfortunately, women of childbearing age appear less aware and knowledgeable about this problem than other women, despite FDA and EPA campaigns to inform every OB/GYN and pediatrician in the country about the potential risks of mercury in fish.

Since mercury sticks around in the body, women may want to avoid fish with high levels of mercury for a year before they get pregnant, not just during pregnancy. The rationale for avoiding fish for a year before pregnancy is because the half-life of mercury in the body is estimated to be about two months. In a study I profile in my video How Long to Detox from Fish Before Pregnancy a group of researchers fed subjects two servings a week of tuna and other high mercury fish to push their mercury levels up, and then stopped the fish. Slowly but surely their levels came back down (see the video for the graph). I know a lot of moms are concerned about exposing their children to mercury containing vaccines, but if they eat even just a serving a week of fish during pregnancy, the latest data shows that their infants end up with substantially more mercury in their bodies than if they were injected with up to six mercury-containing vaccines.

Given the two-month half-life of mercury, within a year of stopping fish consumption our bodies can detox nearly 99% of the mercury. Unfortunately the other industrial pollutants in fish can take longer for our body to get rid of. Certain dioxins, PCBs, and DDT metabolites found in fish have a half-life as long as ten years. So getting that same 99% drop could take 120 years, which is a long time to delay one's first child.

The fact that we can still find DDT in umbilical cord blood decades after the pesticide was banned speaks to the persistence of some pollutants. There's a shortcut for moms, but it's The Wrong Way to Detox.

What effects do these other pollutants have? Well, high concentrations of industrial contaminants are associated with 38 times the odds of diabetes--that's as strong as the relationship between smoking and lung cancer! Isn't diabetes mostly associated with obesity though? Well, these pollutants are fat-soluble, so "as people get fatter the retention and toxicity of persistent organic pollutants related to the risk of diabetes may increase." This suggests the shocking possibility that obesity "may only be a vehicle" for such chemicals.

Now the pollutants could just be a marker for animal product consumption, which may be why there's such higher diabetes risk, since more than 90% of the persistent organic pollutants comes from animal foods. And indeed, in the U.S. every additional serving of fish a week is associated with a 5% increased risk of diabetes, which makes fish consumption about 80% worse than red meat. PCBs are found most concentrated in fish and eggs (Food Sources of PCB Chemical Pollutants), which may be why there are lower levels of Industrial Pollutants in Vegans. This may also help explain the remarkable findings in Eggs and Diabetes.

More on the risks of mercury can be found in these videos:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More Than an Apple a Day, and From Table to Able.

Image Credit: Tatiana Vdb / Flickr

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