Toxic Chemicals in Citrus Fruits?

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

I’ve long been an outspoken proponent of eating organic foods, for many reasons. Simply put, they’re not only safer for the environment, they’re healthier for you.

The nonprofit environmental/consumer health advocacy organization, Environmental Working Group, is a great resource when it comes to understanding the dangers of pesticides used on foods (as well as toxins in health and beauty products). They give research-backed recommendations on what you should use/eat—and more importantly, avoid—to protect yourself from potential health effects of chemical exposure.

Two of their most popular resources are the Skin Deep database, and their annual lists of “Dirty Dozen™” and “Clean Fifteen™” fruits and veggies.

I like this lists because they helps you prioritize which produce you should buy organic. The Dirty Dozen™ highlights the 12 most pesticide-contaminated foods. When it comes to your health and safety, organic is the way to go when buying these fruits and vegetables. Conversely, the Clean Fifteen™ are typically less tainted, and safer options to choose non-organic.

Safer…but not totally safe…

Grapefruits, lemons, mandarins, and oranges do not typically appear on the Dirty Dozen™ list, including the most recent 2021 version. But based on a new EWG study, conventionally grown citrus contains scary levels of certain pesticides*, which can be concerning for you and especially for the children in your life.

In 2020, scientists bought and peeled 25 samples of conventionally grown grapefruits, lemons, mandarins, and oranges. The edible parts were tested for pesticide residues. They found two hormone-disrupting fungicides—imazalil and thiabendazole—in 90% of the samples. (These chemicals are applied after harvesting to prevent rotting.) Mandarins had the highest levels, followed by oranges and grapefruit.

Imazalil is not only a hormone disrupter; the EPA classified it as “likely carcinogenic to humans” in 1999. And according to the EWG, “The average concentration of imazalil detected in all fruits tested was about 20 times the amount that EWG scientists recommend as a limit to protect children against increased risk of cancer…”

Similarly, in an assessment of thiabendazole, the EPA has stated that it is known to cause “harm to the immune and nervous systems and thyroid in adult animals.”

Along with the whole fruit, commercially produced juices—particularly orange—are also problematic. USDA testing of 176 non-organic orange juice samples found that 21% had detectable levels of imazalil and 35% had thiabendazole. The one bright spot here is that juices usually contain less of these fungicides than whole fruits. Fruits harvested for juicing are typically processed right after they’re picked, which reduces the need for post-harvest fungicides.

How to Protect Yourself

Obviously, this isn’t the best news. But it’s also not surprising. We’ve always known that pesticides are prolific in agriculture. It’s just a real bummer that conventionally grown fruits that you generally consider “safer” (because you don’t eat the peels, for example) can be just as potentially toxic as heavily contaminated fruits like strawberries, peaches, grapes, and cherries.

However, even with this new discovery, I don’t recommend avoiding citrus.

First and foremost, the vitamin C in these fruits is so important for flu and illness prevention. You want to eat more citrus in the winter, not less! Second, citrus fruit is readily available across the US in the winter, and eating seasonal produce is better for your overall health.

As you probably can already guess, the key to eating the safest citrus is to choose organic.

In their testing of organic citrus, the EWG found no fungicides or other pesticides on samples. They wrote that, “Organic citrus fruits and fruit juices are the best choice for families looking to avoid synthetic fungicides.”

If you do buy conventional citrus fruits, be sure to thoroughly wash before eating. You can find produce cleaning products at your local grocery store. But I don’t recommend buying them, because you can easily make your own solutions at home using common household ingredients. (Note: you can and should use the following methods to wash organic fruit too. Just because organic is pesticide free, doesn’t mean it’s clean!)

Vinegar and hydrogen peroxide are both wonderful natural disinfectants. Simply create a mixture with equal parts water and either white vinegar or 3% hydrogen peroxide. Pour the solution into a spray bottle and spritz the fruit. Let it sit for a few minutes, rinse with water, then dry.

Baking soda is another option. For every cup of water, mix in one tablespoon of baking soda. Spray the fruit, let it sit for few minutes, rinse with water, then dry. For hard skinned fruits like citrus, you can also shake some baking soda onto the surface, wet a toothbrush or clean scrubber sponge, and scrub the skin. Rinse with water, then dry.

Your Health, and the Planet, Will Thank You

Sadly, we live in an increasingly toxic world. Every choice we make has to take into account the health and safety of not only our loved ones, but our fragile planet.

Please, choose organic whenever possible. Doing so will only give you greater peace of mind, it is a small step in helping to bring vitality back to Mother Earth.

*Note – I use the word, “pesticide,” here as a general term to describe all non-organic chemical applications to crops to prevent pests, weeds, fungi and insects, and intend it to encompass more specific substances like herbicides (like glyphosate), fungicides and insecticides.

Additional References:

© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

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