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In the evolving landscape of food safety and nutrition, one of the most pertinent and confusing issues for shoppers remains the use of pesticides in agriculture. As health and wellness professionals, it’s crucial to understand not only the scientific consensus and regulatory standards concerning pesticides, but also consumer perceptions and concerns to communicate correctly both to your shoppers as well as internally. Recent studies and surveys, including the just-released International Food Information Council (IFIC) Spotlight Survey: “Public Perceptions of Pesticides & Produce Consumption” and Consumer Report’s “Produce Without Pesticides” shed light on these, highlighting the need for informed discussions and guidance. 

Consumer concerns and misconceptions 

A significant portion of consumers express apprehension about the presence of pesticides in their fruits and vegetables. This concern is often fueled by the “Dirty Dozen” list published annually by the Environmental Working Group, which ranks produce with the highest pesticide residues. Despite the controversy over the scientific methodology of these rankings, the list continues to influence public opinion — and creates a conundrum for retail dietitians, especially those who are faced with shoppers’ questions and misunderstandings. 

Research indicates that these concerns may lead to undesirable dietary outcomes. A study published by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that messaging about pesticide residues could potentially deter consumers from purchasing fruits and vegetables, particularly among low-income populations. “They Just Say Organic Food Is Healthier” is a study of perceptions among supermarket shoppers in Southwest Baltimore found strong misperceptions about eating organic foods. These studies, amid countless others, are troubling as these may contribute to a decreased intake of otherwise health-promoting foods. The organic versus conventional produce debate continues, with mostly studies showing that both forms of produce have similar nutritional profiles. Dietitians and health professionals play a crucial role in educating consumers about making informed choices based on facts rather than fear; especially in this era of food inflation and shoppers’ desire to stretch their budgets. 

Recent studies on health impacts 

The scientific community seemingly agrees that the benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables far outweigh the potential risks posed by pesticide exposure, which are minimized by regulatory standards and practices. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, along with international bodies like the European Food Safety Authority, rigorously evaluate pesticides for safety and establish limits for pesticide residues, known as Maximum Residue Limits. 

On April 18, Consumer Reports announced that it’s partnering with The Guardian “to dig more deeply into how pesticides contaminate the U.S. food supply and what we can do about it.” CR’s unique position, with its subscribers and the media, pose a significant voice in this discussion. CR analyzes the USDA’s test results for 29,643 individual food samples and rate the risk for foods based on how many and how often pesticides are detected. CR’s scientists, however, have a bias; they say that the EPA tolerances are set too high and they use lower limits in their evaluation. Hence, a tactic that is sure to add even more confusion in the produce departments of supermarkets nationwide. 

Consumer Reports has tracked the use of pesticides for decades and its latest analysis looked at seven years of USDA data for 59 conventionally grown and organic, fresh, canned, dried and frozen common fruits and vegetables. In nearly two-thirds of the foods, pesticides presented little to worry about, while in 20% of the foods (including bell peppers, blueberries, green beans, potatoes and strawberries) there was significant risk. In the 2022 USDA’s Annual Summary of Pesticide Data, more than 99% of foods tested by the USDA contained pesticide residue below the EPA’s legal limits. 

Surveys on consumer attitudes 

Surveys can reveal a gap between consumer perceptions and scientific evidence. According to the IFIC Survey conducted among 1,000 adults in February, of the 91% of people who report that they consider how food is grown at least rarely, nearly 70% report that keeping food safe to eat and 60% note the use of pesticides as their top concerns. For those that are concerned with the use of pesticides in growing food, nearly 60% believe consuming foods grown with pesticides is bad for their health; 36% believe that pesticides used today are more toxic than they have ever been and 35% believe that pesticides are bad for the environment. The quantity of pesticides used is also a concern with 32% reporting that the amount used to grow foods is higher than ever before. When asked if they have ever decided not to consume or purchase food because of pesticide concerns, nearly 60% said “yes,” nearly 30% said “no” and others said they were not sure. According to IFIC, of those who are concerned about pesticide use, the majority note that they have avoided purchasing or consuming vegetables (71%) and fruits (59%) due to this concern. Avoidance of fruits and vegetables has significant negative health implications because the overwhelming majority of Americans already do not consume the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables established by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 

Strategies for health professionals 

As advocates for public health, health and wellness professionals should focus on the strategies that reassure and educate shoppers:  

  • Clarify the role and comprehensiveness of regulatory standards in ensuring the safety of pesticide use in agriculture. 
  • Encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables, regardless of their organic or conventional status, as the benefits vastly outweigh the potential risks. 
  • Help to dismantle myths related to pesticide residues through evidence-based information. 
  • Guide consumers in making choices that align with their personal values and health needs, such as choosing locally grown produce or even participating in their local community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. 
  • Most importantly, emphasize the value and variety in your store’s produce department, which on average stocks over 400 items and accounts for just over 10% of a supermarket’s sales, according to FMI – The Food Industry Association.

Your challenge 

The disconnect between consumer perceptions and scientific facts about pesticides in produce presents an ongoing challenge for us all — especially our shoppers. As health and wellness professionals, your role is not only to provide accurate information, but also to listen, understand and empathize with consumer concerns. By fostering an environment of trust and transparency, we can better guide our communities toward healthier and more informed dietary choices devoid of sensation press headlines which do little more than scare shoppers. 

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