How facts, not fear, can help you eat a healthier diet for optimal aging

Disclosure: I was a guest on a recent “Facts, Not Fear” produce safety media tour organized and hosted by The Alliance for Food & Farming. My travel expenses were covered, and I was compensated to write a blog post on a topic of my choosing. All the ideas expressed in this post are my own.

Farm to fork. Most of us are separated from where our food comes from. Sure, we know that farmers and ranchers grow and produce food, but how many of you have visited a farm, talked to farmers about their production methods and the challenges they face, or visited a food packing plant to learn how technology is being used to quickly and safely pack food so that it ends up in the grocery store and eventually on the fork?

Apples growing in the shadow of Mount Hood

My trip to the Hood River Valley and Mount Adams region, north of Portland, Oregon, allowed me to visit apple, cherry, pear, and blueberry farms, talk to farmers and get answers to the questions you asked. (And I got to eat a honey crisp apple right from the tree!)

The number one question was about organic versus conventional produce. Which is better you asked? The answer is it is your choice, and a few facts might help you decide:

  • Organic is a food production term. It doesn’t mean the produce is healthier or safer or always more sustainable than conventionally grown produce. The orchards we visited had both organic and conventionally grown fruit. Farmers are quick to point out that some consumers think organic produce is “safer,” meaning that no pesticides are used in growing a crop. That is not true; both organic and conventional agriculture use pesticides to protect the crop. Organic farmers use different pesticides that are described as “natural,” but natural doesn’t always mean better.
Freshly harvested blueberries

All conventionally grown produce is tested for pesticide residues by USDA throughout the year. Tests are randomly conducted, and the tests consistently reveal very low levels of pesticide residues. In fact, 42% contain none and over 98% of the fruits and vegetables monitored do not exceed safety limits set by the U.S. EPA. OK, so I hear you saying, any pesticide residue on my food is BAD but check out this calculator to help reassure you that trace amounts of chemicals on conventionally grown produce is not a hazard to your health. (The analysis used on the calculator was conducted by toxicologists at University of California, Riverside.) Using myself as an example, I could eat 850 apples or 13,225 serving of blueberries in 1 day without any effect even if the worst-case scenario of the fruit having the highest pesticide residue recorded by the USDA.

  • Organic produces isn’t always a more sustainable way to grow food than conventional produce. Some organically grown produce, like pears, require more inputs (pesticide application, water, weeding) and more land to grow an organic crop. There are many ways to eat a sustainable diet and it can be achieved with both conventional and organic crops.

Key Takeaways

We have the safest, most affordable, and most abundant food supply in the world. Farmers feed their families, as well as ours, and they work hard every day to make our food safe and nutritious.

Climate change is affecting farmers around the globe, but I saw firsthand the ravages of the 100+ degree temps that blanketed the northwest this summer. Blueberries literally shrived up and died on the bush before they could be harvested, and one farmer lost 40% of his apple crop this year. Despite these challenges, farmers are resilient!

Our food system isn’t broken. Farmers are innovative, passionate, and hard at work every day of the year to supply our food.

Mount Adams Fruit Farmer

Conventional versus organic is your choice, but conventionally grown produce is safe and affordable.

Eat more produce every day. Many people talk about a plant-based diet, yet we aren’t meeting the recommendation for fruits and vegetables…the original plant-based foods.

Eat less highly processed plant-based foods and more real plant-based foods…fruits and veggies!

Wash it. Always wash all produce under running water to remove any remaining pesticide residues, dirt and bacteria that may linger on the produce. Scrub most produce (not tender produce, like berries) with a brush to help loosen dirt. Use only water; never dishwashing soap or disinfectant solutions as they are not meant for human consumption.

Stay tuned for part 2 of this post when I will answer your questions on how to choose an apple, pick a pear, and keep blueberries fresh and tasty.

 Chris Rosenbloom is a registered dietitian nutritionist and professor emerita at Georgia State University. She is the co-author of Food & Fitness after 50. Click here to follow her blog.