3 Ways to Eat Safer Produce This Winter
How to avoid pesticides and still load up on fruits and veggies even when the garden’s long gone
It’s winter. You’re staring at the fruit in the produce aisle. Do you dare buy those strawberries from Mexico or those cantaloupes from Guatemala? When is it better to buy frozen, or even canned — or should you skip the out-of-season stuff altogether? Here’s a quick guide to getting the healthiest bang for your winter food-shopping buck.
Know the score on imported produce
Chances are, most of the produce you see in the store in winter comes from somewhere else — within the United States or much further away. According to the FDA, nearly 50 percent of our fresh fruit and 20 percent of fresh veggies come from outside the country. In the winter those numbers may be even higher.
The big concern with imported produce is illegal pesticide residues. It’s the most common reason produce is turned away from our borders according to a report from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Contamination with salmonella or other pathogens (including listeria and shigella) is the second most common reason.
The good news: Government agencies and several objective studies have found that the pesticide residue on imported produce generally meets Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency regulations. According to the FDA’s 2011 Pesticide Report, about 93 percent of imported produce was in compliance with U.S. standards. It’s possible that imported produce from certain countries may even offer advantages. For example, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) notes that the European Union has banned the pesticide diphenylamine, a growth regulator and antioxidant used in the United States to keep apples and some pears pretty during months in cold storage.
But some imported produce does fail to make the grade, and some countries, including China, are bigger offenders than others. In a testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in 2013, food safety expert Patty Lovera of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer advocacy group, noted that Chinese food imports accounted for 27 percent of our processed (that includes frozen) fruits, vegetables and nuts and 31 percent of our garlic in 2011. There are more than 1 million Chinese food processing plants, and in 2012 the FDA inspected only 10, according to that group. Even organic Chinese produce has been rejected by the FDA for high pesticide residue levels.
Should you steer clear of Chinese produce? Not necessarily. "A higher rejection rate does not mean that more violative produce ends up in U.S. grocery stores," says Lauren E. Sucher, an FDA press officer. Produce the FDA rejects due to unacceptable pesticide residues never enters the United States and therefore doesn't reach our shelves. "Additionally, when the FDA identifies the presence of unlawful residues of this type, the product from the identified firm may be subject to detention without physical examination and placed on an appropriate Import Alert. Future shipments of a particular product that is on an Import Alert from the identified firm must be shown to be free of the unlawful pesticide chemical residue, or that shipment will also be refused admission," says Sucher.
Consider frozen and canned
Frozen, and sometimes canned, food is usually processed immediately after harvesting, which helps preserve its vitamins and minerals. So if you’re buying out-of-season produce, frozen fruits and veggies may be your best choice. You can check the label to find out the country of origin. Frozen fruits and vegetables will keep well in the freezer for 8 to 12 months.
Make smart non-organic choices
You don’t always have to buy organic to eat healthy. Some produce — both domestic and imported — tends to have low levels of pesticide residue even if it’s not organic. According to the EWG, that list includes avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes.
You may want to opt for organic when it comes to produce that tends to have higher levels of pesticide residues. According to the EWG, these include apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, sweet bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, potatoes, hot peppers, domestic blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens.
Finally, it's common sense, but be sure to thoroughly rinse all produce — organic or not — before you eat it. That will help get rid of dirt and bacteria. Plain water will suffice; the FDA recommends against using soap or a store-bought produce wash. Dry the produce with a clean towel or paper towel to help get rid of any remaining bacteria.