Eating fruit and vegetables is linked to a host of health benefits. Unfortunately, what we don’t always think about is how modern farming and agricultural methods have resulted in the contamination of fresh produce with harmful pesticides, impacting the “goodness” of our fruit and veggies.
In 2015, the World Health Organization alarmed the public when it announced the link between eating processed meats and ingesting carcinogenic chemicals such as nitrate and nitrites, which are used to preserve food, and can also be found in fruit and vegetables. Although nitrate occurs naturally in fruit and vegetables, and in small amounts is not harmful, the levels of nitrate occurring in food has increased over the years.
Nitrogen is the most-used fertiliser in the world, and today we are using almost 20 times more than we did 50 years ago, which is posing serious health threats. “Sadly, most people are not aware of the risks they face daily when shopping for fruits and vegetables; foods that we know are good for us, but the issue is the excess of nitrogen in what we are consuming, that our bodies convert to damaging carcinogenic nitrates,” says Damian Michael, owner of Alvarita, a food safety company that recently launched the GreenTest device for consumers to self-test nitrate levels in fruit, vegetables, meat and water.
Children don’t process contaminants like adults
Registered JHB based dietitian Lila Bruk highlights the need to think before we eat and to take care in what we are feeding our little ones. “As consumers, we are becoming increasingly aware of not only the nutritional value, but also the safety of the food we eat. With conditions like cancer on the rise, greater precautions need to be taken to choose foods that will not only provide immediate nourishment, but will also manage the future health and wellbeing of both ourselves and our children. It’s important that we start by being mindful of what we are feeding our children as they are more likely to become ill from contaminants than adults are as their little bodies function differently.”
According to Lila, infants generally convert approximately double the amount ingested nitrate to nitrite compared to older children and adults. Nitrite changes the normal form of haemoglobin, which carries oxygen in the blood to the rest of the body, into an undesirable form called methaemoglobin that can’t carry oxygen. Particularly high concentrations of nitrate in drinking water can result in a temporary blood disorder in infants called methaemoglobinaemia, or “blue baby syndrome”.
She cautions parents against feeding children tinned, dried and frozen fruit and vegetables, and to rather opt for fresh organic produce. “Generally, if you’re eating fresh fruit and veg, the vitamin C in these foods will, to an extent, naturally help to reduce the conversion of the nitrates and nitrites to nitrosamine.”
A guide to low-risk fruit and veg
The GreenTest website identifies certain fruits and vegetables that are at higher risk of contamination with nitrates − especially those that have very thin skins, skins that we don’t peel (like peaches) or no skins at all (like strawberries and celery). Those that have thicker skins (like avocados and bananas) are less of a concern as it is harder for the chemicals to penetrate the skin.
Here is the GreenTest guide to high nitrate fruits:
- Stick to organic peaches. Conventional peaches were number one on the Dirty Dozen list in 2009, and number two in 2010. They contain 62 pesticides when produced conventionally.
- Strawberries have a thin, porous skin and are frequently imported from developing countries where lax regulations allow a high pesticide spray level.
- The peel of conventional apples contains the highest level of pesticides, but it also contains much of the nutrients. Instead of peeling apples, opt for purchasing the organic variety to avoid the 42 pesticide chemicals found in non-organic apples.
- The Environmental Working Group discovered that imported grapes have a particularly high concentration of pesticide residue and should be avoided. They contain about 34 chemicals.
- Tomatoes are a popular thin-skinned fruit that absorb any chemical sprays applied to them during production. To avoid consuming chemicals, always buy organic tomatoes.