Outside magazine, July 1994
There are people who can resist strawberries. In fact, they bristle at eating strawberries--plain, or on a piece of shortcake, or even dipped in chocolate--and it's got nothing to do with allergic reactions or flavor. It's because strawberries are porous little things, and the fear is that when you eat them, you take in whatever they've sponged up, such as benomyl, captan, and methomyl.
Drop that little tidbit at the wrong time and you can darken a Fourth of July picnic, but it does bring with it a larger truth. To trot out an old phrase, we are what we eat, and despite our good intentions--dutifully restricting ourselves to lean meats and lots of fruits and vegetables in the name of health and fitness--we're loading up on hundreds of chemicals. Their potential toxicity, how they can cause everything from stomachache to cancer, has been recognized for a long time. What's still up for debate is how much of these toxins our bodies can handle, and recently we've been tempted by what seems an obvious solution: counters full of meat and produce claiming to be chemical-free. Shouldn't we follow the logic that if some chemicals are bad, none are better?
That's one fear allayed, but what about all the chemicals that we so blithely spray over the American farm? According to Robert Scheuplein, director of the Office of Special Research Skills and a senior toxicologist for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, they're not worth worrying about either. "The natural toxins in fruits and vegetables dwarf the pesticide residues you'll find in conventional produce," he says. "In terms of a health threat, pesticides in produce aren't even on the chart. The produce itself is more of a risk." Scheuplein cites an example: The natural toxins in a quarter-pound of conventionally grown lettuce, for instance, are 2,500 times as dangerous as the pesticides you take in in a day's worth of meals. "People are nuts about pesticides," he says, "and there's absolutely no reason for it."
Not surprisingly, such claims elicit sparks from some quarters. For one thing, says Diane Bowen, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers, individual risk from ingested pesticides isn't the only issue. "Organic farming is environmentally sound," she points out, "keeping tons of chemicals out of the soil and water supplies." And there's no doubt that that's a problem: In 1990, the EPA tested more than 1,300 wells for pesticide contamination and found nearly 15 percent to have tainted water.
As for Scheuplein's claim that pesticide-treated produce is safe for consumption, Bowen admits she can't prove him wrong. But she points out that few pesticides have been thoroughly tested and that much of the existing research has been conducted by pesticide manufacturers themselves--hardly objective. "Government officials and scientists may claim food is safe," she says, "but the truth is, there's a lot we don't know about pesticides. We need caution in our food choices."
The proper produce-shopping strategy, then, depends on whom you ask. Scheuplein says that, short of the goods being rotten, you can't go wrong. Bowen, of course, recommends organic produce and cautions consumers to look beyond the labels. Some stores will rebadge conventionally grown fruits and vegetables as organic, she says, and if you have doubts you shouldn't be afraid to ask the manager to identify the produce suppliers. If you don't want to take the shopkeeper's word for it, contact the farmer; all fruits and vegetables that are certified organic are grown according to strict uniform standards.
That claim represents a leap of faith that science hasn't yet taken. Resistant strains of bacteria in fact have been found in meat products and can be harmful. But it isn't clear whether such bacteria develop solely because of the animal's drugged-out upbringing, or whether poor butchering standards and inadequate storage and preparation also play a part.
Even if natural meat is healthier, you may not be getting the product you're paying extra for. "The government's definition of 'natural' means only two things: that the meat is minimally processed and that it contains no artificial ingredients," says Mel Coleman, chairman of Coleman Natural Meats in Denver. "All fresh meat sold to consumers fits that bill. A lot of outfits are labeling their product 'natural' when it hasn't changed one iota."
The nutritional benefits of "free-range" meat and poultry are murkier still. Proponents claim that allowing the animals to roam instead of keeping them penned is not only more humane, but can produce a more robust, less stressed animal. But again, scientists aren't ready to concur, and because the government hasn't set any standards for what "free-range" is, virtually any livestock owner can use the term.
For now, the best way to choose healthful meat or poultry is to buy it fresh--if not from a butcher, then on or before the "sell-by" date on the packaging--and to use or freeze it within a day or two. Cook meat until the juices run clear and the center is no longer pink; at that point it has gotten too hot for bacteria to survive.
If you want to go natural, apply the same doggedness that you would for produce. "Ask your butcher or store manager two questions," says Coleman. "Was the animal raised from birth without antibiotics, growth-promoting hormones, or steroids? Was it fed pesticide-free feed? If the answer isn't yes to both, don't buy it."
So you'll need to rely on your head to get the food you want--and ultimately to come to a decision on the entire debate--but thankfully the proper answer relies heavily on common sense. To avoid the slim chance that you would ever OD on food-borne chemicals, naturally occurring or otherwise, eat from a big menu.
If you think that's obvious, maybe you can wow the picnic crowd with this one: The fungicides used to grow most strawberries may be hard on the soil, but the fruit's skin has probably turned away most of the chemicals that it might have been treated with. Wash your strawberries in warm water to rinse off much of what lingers, and enjoy. You can even have two pieces of shortcake with nary a worry.
Ken McAlpine, a frequent contributer to Bodywork, recently coauthored Scott Tinley's Winning Guide to Sports Endurance. recently published by Rodale Press.