Apples Top List of Pesticide-Contaminated Produce
An apple a day—with a side of pesticides? Apples are the most chemically-contaminated produce, according to a report published today by the Environmental Working Group, a public health advocacy group. After washing and peeling, 92 percent of apples contain at least two pesticides; they're followed on EWG's "Dirty Dozen" list by celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, and imported grapes. "We think what's happening to apples is more pesticides and fungicides are being applied after the harvest so the fruit can have a longer shelf life," EWG analyst Sonya Lunder told USA Today. "Pesticides might be in small amounts, but we don't know what the subtle, long-term effects of many of these pesticides are yet." The group suggests either buying organic, or opting for produce on its "Clean 15" list—including corn, pineapples, avocados, sweet peas, mangoes, and grapefruit. "Picking five servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most contaminated would cause you to consume an average of 14 different pesticides a day," the group says in its report. Still, it adds, "The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure."
Health Benefits of Home-Grown Produce
Americans need to adopt a more plant-based diet, rich in fruits and vegetables, according to a report that proposed updates to federal dietary guidelines. And for good reason: Plants offer a host of health benefits. Aside from their fiber, vitamins, and minerals, evidence suggests that fruits and veggies contain compounds that play a role in preventing certain cancers as well as heart disease and stroke, for which supplements are no substitute, says dietitian Elizabeth Pivonka, president of the nonprofit Produce for Better Health Foundation.
Beta carotene found in carrots and sweet potatoes, for example, has been shown to help protect against lung cancer, but may be harmful when taken in pill form. And research suggests that calcium supplements may raise the risk of heart attacks in adults while doing little to benefit bone health. (That's why some researchers are now encouraging folks to get the nutrient in their diet instead. Spinach and broccoli are good sources.)
Getting more isn't always easy. Supermarket produce can be expensive, making packaged snacks—already sweeter or saltier and higher in calories than fruits and vegetables—all the more tempting. A cheaper alternative: Grow your own. Home-grown produce has other advantages beyond its low cost. It's often tastier and arguably a bit more nutritious. [Read more: Health Benefits of Home-Grown Produce.]
Why an All-'Superfoods' Diet Is a Mistake
We've all seen those lists of "superfoods"—certain fruits, nuts, and other foods that, advocates say, have health-boosting effects. But some people take those lists so seriously that they limit their food choices to what's on them. "They'll say, 'Every day I have Kashi with blueberries and almonds for breakfast, salmon on leafy greens with broccoli for lunch, and grilled chicken with sweet potato for dinner,'" says Mary Beth Augustine, a registered dietitian and senior integrative nutritionist for Beth Israel Continuum Center for Health and Healing in New York. The more educated they are and the more reading about health they've done, the more likely they are to strictly adhere to what they think is a perfect lineup of foods, she says.
While that one-day menu is certainly healthful, getting into a rigid dietary routine isn't ideal, dieticians and nutrition scientists say. Many fruits and vegetables are chock full of nutrients. There are vitamins, minerals, and fiber, of course, but plants also have a host of special compounds they evolved to defend themselves from, for example, the sun's radiation, says Navindra Seeram, an assistant professor at the Bioactive Botanical Research Laboratory at the University of Rhode Island who studies the properties of berries. Those phytochemicals aren't essential for our own life and energy, but "research has shown that they may impart biological effects," says Seeram. (They're mostly studied for their beneficial effects, but some can have detrimental ones that we need to be aware of, such as grapefruit's interaction with some drugs.) [Read more: Why an All-'Superfoods' Diet Is a Mistake.]