It always amazes me how far we have come as a species, yet how primitive our collective perspective remains on food. Across 8 billion minds, we still somehow find it in our best interest to simply reduce food to two questions: "how much good stuff is in this?" and "how much fat and sugar?"
But the reality is, for every nutrient and vitamin we seek, there are countless chemicals we should be feverishly paying equal, if not more attention to. Pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, washing agents, preservatives. You name it - it's a long list with not a lot of clean research on their long-term effects relative to the enormity of food's impact in our lives. Yet year after year, we've somehow decided that the only things we choose to be scared of and that we'd like to make a conscientious effort to avoid...are the very nutrients that are vital to our bodies in moderation and absolute biological necessities. The irony is world class.
As for the 'other things' I listed above? Saying they are scant mentioned in day-to-day nutrition talk would be an understatement. I challenge you to find me a single reference at your local grocery store produce aisle.
That's why I can't help but smile every year around this time, when the EWG "Dirty Dozen" list comes out, a list of 51 fruits, legumes and vegetables ranked by the level of pesticide content found by the USDA in its annual survey (as a disclaimer, I do acknowledge that the rankings are based on sheer levels, not potency or toxicity, but hey, find me something better).
Every year, I find the fruits on the list are fairly predictable because we have an intuitive grasp on what requires the most pesticides: soft, easily perishable, low-defense fruits that just seem easy for a bug or disease to get through the skin. Strawberries, nectarines, peaches and most other berries, for example, top the list almost every year and that shouldn't be surprising.
But what I do think surprises most people is everything on the vegetable side. Especially because the vegetables we happen to associate most with this newfound, rabid health craze of ours, happen to be on the top of the dirty list, year after year. For your convenience, here are the top 5 vegetables on the pesticide charts:
- Collard greens
The natural question: for all the vitamins and iron and antioxidants we get from these 'superfood' vegetables (in quotes because I now can't take the term seriously anymore thanks to all the companies and lobbying interests out there that have turned it into a borderline technicality and have utterly ruined its meaning a la 'organic' - looking at you, goji berries), is it really worth the drastically elevated and potential carcinogenic and neurotoxic risks of ingesting these pesticides in much higher quantities than at any point in the history of our species? Are you comfortable with that? Can we really not think of any better way to intake these nutrients, as if we haven't been able to take in enough iron and vitamin K for thousands of years until we discovered the magical plant known as kale? Why take such a degree of risk at all when there are plenty of other ways to take in what we need with foods and produce that don't even make the top half of this list? I sit back and ask myself these questions and can't help but struggle to come up with a reason why we, as a species, have decided in the span of just a few years, to massively leverage ourselves to a few particular plants and all their chemical baggage that we don't fully understand. Just think about the health-crazed millions out there led to believe these are miracle foods, ingesting pounds of this stuff daily without a flipping clue about the potential and unknown effects of the mountains of kale they chew through every meal. It's mindboggling. And all for what? What, your healthy little brain can't think of any other place to get your daily vitamin A/C/K, fiber and iron? Trust me, it's not that hard.
And for those of you that I know will inevitably respond to this saying "yea but I eat organic kale, idiot, which doesn't use pesticides!" - I don't want to break your heart, but the USDA definition of organic does not have any prohibition on pesticides, though they recommend organic pesticides be prioritized (what a high bar). Yes, even that sweet, sweet Whole Foods kale you buy by the bag. I'd bet any amount of money that all that fresh, pristine, organic kale you eat has plenty of pesticide residue on it.
Thus, as with most things in life, my opinion comes down to the same three conclusions:
- Everything is best in moderation;
- Never go all-in on something you don't really understand;
- And raw kale tastes like shit.
Just my rando thought for the day.
Update #1: For those of you wondering why I seemingly skipped some vegetables in my top 5, I didn't. Peas and peppers are not vegetables. Trust me, or you can look it up.
Update #2: I'm not advocating you cut out everything on this list or that you should cut out kale. This is not ridiculing the health craze of the last few years (ok maybe some parts). I'm just of the opinion that there is no reason to massively overlever yourself to a handful of vegetables when they have a known large quantity of unknowns with known discouraging properties. Spread out the risks. Eat everything in moderation. It's worked for thousands of years. It'll work in 2017.