Junk food is “safe” too – but that’s not the whole story

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Environmental Working Group has always urged people to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, organic or conventional – and we always will.  A diet heavy in produce and light in processed foods, red meat and soda could well help you live a longer, healthier life. 

Still, we live in the real world. Some of us at EWG enjoy the occasional cheeseburger and fries at lunch or bag of potato chips with a beer on Friday – when work is done, of course. Why not? They taste good, even if they’re not exactly health food.

Eating a few Cheetos or drinking a diet Coke is “safe.” You won’t go into cardiac arrest, suffer shortness of breath, temporary blindness or any other dire effects you might undergo from inhaling some petrochemical, or, say, taking a dose of the drug Cialis. That goes, too, for biting into a conventionally grown apple or a stick of celery that carry the residues of multiple pesticides. When you finish a snack of those healthy foods, you’ll still be standing.

But regularly choosing unhealthy junk food and consuming produce that’s heavy in chemical residues could both, over time, pose a risk to your health.

Gorging on junk food and soda is bad for anyone’s health – period. And I want to be clear that I am not comparing that segment of the food industry with those who grow fruits and vegetables. If you find yourself at a party and the host offers you a choice between a Twinkie and a handful of non-organic strawberries, you’re better off going with the fruit.

But the fact is, a number of highly respected public health and nutrition experts have repeatedly urged Americans to eat plenty of fruits and veggies but to avoid, if possible, those with larger pesticide footprints by choosing organic versions. That’s especially important advice for pregnant women and young children.

Last year, a group of top experts on the issue of children’s health and exposures to toxic chemicals had this to say in a letter they wrote to top Obama administration officials on this very subject:

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that pesticide consumption can cause lasting harm to children’s brain development. Three recently published studies have all shown that early life exposure of children to pesticides can cause persistent problems in learning, memory and behavior. One of these studies, led by Brenda Eskenazi of the University of California, Berkeley, found that children born to mothers with the most intense exposures to pesticides demonstrate IQ deficits of up to seven points.

Children are uniquely sensitive to harmful effects from pesticides. Yet they eat substantial quantities of certain fresh fruits and vegetables – apples, berries, peaches, for example – proven to contain multiple pesticide residues.

The scientists who signed the letter included several of the most respected authorities in environmental health in the country, if not the world. (See the full list below.)

But that’s just the beginning. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which has 60,000 members and represents virtually all U.S. pediatricians, advises parents to “minimize using foods in which chemical pesticides or herbicides were used by farmers.”

Others who have repeatedly called on consumers to eat the organic versions of produce items that consistently carry the heaviest pesticide residues include heart surgeon and television personality Dr. Mehmet Oz. Nearly two years ago (Sept. 23, 2010), The Dr. OZ Show website posted this:

Eating food that contains large doses of pesticides can wreak havoc on your nervous system and negatively affect your heart and lungs.

Food, health and nutrition writer Michael Pollan wrote in the New York Times Magazine last year (Oct. 6, 2011) that:

If you have young kids, it’s worth paying the organic premium on whatever they eat or drink the most of organically. On produce, some items, when grown conventionally, have more pesticide residue than others, so when buying these, it pays to buy organic.

Pollan went on to say in that article the same thing that EWG has been saying since 1993:

But do keep in mind that it’s important to eat fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they’re grown.

Influential nutritionist Andy Bellatti puts it this way on his popular “Small Bites” blog:

All pesticides are not created equal. While some don’t make it past fruit skins and peels, others are absorbed into the flesh… When it comes to the top offenders, I always try to buy organic.  There is still a lot we don’t know about pesticides’ effects on human health.

I could fill pages with quotes from pediatricians (including my own children’s), toxicologists, nutrition experts and others who counsel their clients and the public to reduce pesticide consumption, but I’ll stop here.

These are the considered opinions, based on a long trail of scientific studies and their own educated analyses, of these noted health and nutrition experts, who believe it is better that we – especially children and pregnant women – avoid consuming pesticide-carrying food whenever we have a choice.

One group that represents chemical-intensive growers in California, the Alliance for Food and Farming, is demanding that EWG pull down its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, erroneously claiming it scares people away from produce and into the arms of a pepperoni pizza. But the guide will remain in place for those people who simply want to buy fruits and vegetables that don’t come with a large mix of toxic crop chemicals that are made to zap bugs and weeds on the spot and that could have adverse implications for their, and their children’s health.

EWG also urges readers, particularly parents and expectant mothers, to heed the expert advice cited above. While spokespeople for chemical agriculture repeatedly argue that it’s perfectly safe to consume multiple pesticides, these renowned experts – who have dedicated their professional lives to environmental health – clearly have a different point of view. And it’s driven not by a thirst for profits and higher sales figures, but to protect public health.

Here’s the full list of experts who wrote to the White House last year about the effects of pesticides on children’s brain development:

Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., M.Sc.

Professor of Pediatrics and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine

Alan Greene, M.D.

Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Stanford University

Harvey Karp, M.D.

Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, USC School of Medicine

Chensheng (Alex) Lu, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor of Environmental Exposure, Harvard School of Public Health

Frederica P. Perera, Dr.P.H.

Professor of Clinical Environmental Health Services and Deputy Director, Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, Columbia University

Andrew Weil, M.D.

Founder and Director, Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, and Clinical Professor of Medicine, Professor of Public Health, Lovell-Jones Professor of Integrative Rheumatology, University of Arizona Health Sciences Center.

Robin M. Whyatt, Dr.P.H.

Professor of Clinical Environmental Health Services

Deputy Director, Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, Columbia University

Charles Benbrook

Chief Scientist, The Organic Center

Kenneth A. Cook

President and co-founder, Environmental Working Group



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