As a consumer, I am constantly wondering: should I buy organic vegetables? If I don’t buy all organic, what organic vegetables should I buy? Should I really be concerned about pesticides in my food?

Unlike physical hazards, you can’t see, hear, or probably even taste trace pesticides in your food. This problem isn’t unique for pesticides, but is common to all molecules that we interact with. It simply costs too much for consumers to have the instrumentation at home to find out what pesticides are in our food. Instead, we must rely on the results of government laboratories who perform gas chromatography and liquid chromatography in central labs.

In the United States, the organization that performs pesticide testing is the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) through a program called the Pesticide Data Program (PDP). Every year, the PDP publishes a report after extensive testing throughout the year to summarize the levels of pesticides found in a broad range of fresh fruits and vegetables (~10,000 samples per year). The report is 193 pages long. To get data for any given vegetable, you may have to read through 5 years of reports, as the fruits and vegetables are rotated through the testing program.

The most recent publication from the PDP was published November 2016. The primary conclusion from the report is that “over 99% of products sampled through the PDP had residues below the EPA tolerances.” This is great news as presumably the EPA tolerances are set at levels that are an indication of when a pesticide would be hazardous to health. A caveat to this is that detected residues with no established tolerances are not included in the 99% metric.

So, going back to the question, what organic vegetables should I buy? The answer lies in the table to the right. I analyzed the data from the last 5 years of reports to determine the worst fruit and vegetable offenders that have the largest number of pesticides above the EPA tolerances or without an established EPA tolerance.

As a final note, I recommended that you always wash fruits and vegetables for 15-20 seconds with cold water before eating. If you don’t, you’re in unknown territory because the PDP always washes their vegetables before testing for pesticides. Happy eating!

For additional gas chromatography resources, see our technical literature, including an application note on pesticide testing.

Andrew Jones

by Andrew Jones

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