AS much as 40% of all food sold in Spain may contain traces of pesticides, according to data collected by the Spanish Agency for Food Security and Nutrition (AESAN).
AESAN’s most recent data — published in April 2023 — is from 2021, and was analysed by the environmental group Ecologists in Action.
According to the analysis, fruits and vegetables were by far the most contaminated foods, containing 121 of the 123 total pesticides detected in the products sampled by AESAN.
In total, 43% of the fruits and vegetables analysed were found to contain pesticides.
Although pesticides are a normal part of commercial agriculture, a worrying 46 of the substances detected in food have been banned in the European Union.
One of these is Chlorpyrifos, a substance used to kill insects and worms, which was removed from the EU’s list of approved pesticides in 2020 after experts concluded that the chemical could be potentially carcinogenic and harmful to neurological development, particularly in infants.
Chlorpyrifos was found to be present in some Spanish coffee beans, olive oil, oranges, and pomelos.
An additional 17 of the pesticides detected were on the EU’s list of “candidates for substitution.”
These substances are approved and are non-toxic to humans — according to the EU’s “candidate for substitution” fact sheet — although the EU has directed member states to replace them for safer alternatives when possible.
Of all the fruits and vegetables on the list, the five containing the greatest number of residual pesticides were table grapes, on which 51 different pesticides were detected; sweet peppers, which were shown to contain 32 different pesticides; Mandarin oranges, with 28; pomelos (grapefruits), also with 28; and pears, which contained 23 different pesticides.
Ecologists in Action pointed out that the actual rate of contamination could be higher, as AESAN’s analysis only looked at 1,904 samples — or four per 100,000 inhabitants — which is far below the European Union’s average sample rate.
However, how much pesticide is actually consumed depends on the product. On fruits with a peel, for example, such as mandarins or grapefruits, many or most of the chemicals remain on the waxy exterior.
The thicker a fruit or vegetable’s peel, the more difficult it is for chemicals to seep in.
Spain is notoriously among Europe’s worst offenders for pesticide use, utilising more than 75,000 tonnes in 2020, increasing from just over 73,000 in 2019.
This trend runs counter to the EU “Farm to Fork” strategy, which seeks to cut the use of pesticides among its member states by 50% by 2030.
“For this, aid is necessary for the agricultural sector, which must learn new ways to grow food without the archaic use of toxins,” wrote Kistiñe Garcia — a spokesperson with Ecologists in Action — in a release.
While there are few conclusive answers, science has suggested that washing alone is not enough to remove all residual pesticides from produce.
Studies have suggested that peeling, blanching, cooking, and soaking fruits and vegetables is more effective at reducing pesticides than just washing.
Additionally, research has indicated that the efficacy of treatment methods can vary depending on the kind of fruit or vegetable.
Researchers in a 1999 study on tomatoes, for example, found that in order to remove all residual pesticides, they first had to freeze the fruit, then peel and juice them.
Most research indicates that one of the best ways to cleanse products of pesticides is by cooking them.
In short, you should at least wash your fruit and veg well before eating them. Peeling, scrubbing and cooking will also help remove residual pesticides.
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