Experts around the world proclaim the importance of fruits and vegetables in forming a healthy, well-balanced diet. While these ingredients are undoubtedly packed with beneficial nutrients, many are also covered in pesticides from the growing process. While you don’t want bugs to devour the products, the idea that they’re covered in chemicals is off-putting to most.

If you are a produce lover or just looking to implement better ingredients in your lifestyle, there are a few things you’ll want to know before filling up your cart. Here are 11 questions about healthy food production, pesticides and processing you’ll want answered before choosing your next meal.

Where Does Your Produce Come From?

Do you wonder where those colorful fruits and vegetables come from when it’s the dead of winter in your town?

Well, most produce is grown in regions where the climate is warm year-round and has mild winters. The key is to raise crops in areas with the best environment in relation to the product. Some foods need to be grown in cooler regions for the greatest yield. In the U.S., California is the top agricultural producing state in the country. However, other states like Iowa and Nebraska also have considerable roles in the industry.

Considerable quantities are also imported into the U.S. from around the world. When you examine produce in your local grocery stores, it’s quite common to find products shipped from Mexico, South America and even Africa. However, it can come from almost anywhere, so take a closer peek at the country of origin the next time you pick up an item. Importing provides a greater variety of produce year-round instead of limiting people to what’s grown locally or nationally.

What Pesticides Are Used on Fruits and Vegetables?

Are you looking for the facts about fruits and vegetables when it comes to pesticides? The truth is that even organic foods use chemicals to keep bugs and parasites from destroying crops. People use pesticides around the world, on produce and even in lawn care and landscaping. They commonly disperse through rainwater and end up in natural waterways, ultimately leading to contamination.

The levels of pesticides used on produce in each country vary, and CDC reports show that the average American has 29 different pesticides circulating inside their body on any given day. While the Food Quality Protection Act requires the EPA to check that pesticide levels are safe for children, it does not limit the number of them used per item.

The most common pesticides include organophosphates, such as chlorpyrifos and malathion. The CDC has found that exposure to organophosphates is poisonous for humans and can cause headaches, diarrhea, dizziness and vomiting. Long after you’ve been exposed, you can develop nervous system problems like muscle weakness and neuropathy. There is also a potential link to certain cancers, such as leukemia and lymphoma.

Naturally, these symptoms would alarm most people, but experts report that risks are minimal. Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes an annual list identifying which crops contain the most pesticide residue and calls them the Dirty Dozen. It also publishes the Clean 15, which includes products with the lowest amount of pesticides.

How Are They Washed and Packaged?

Produce processing is largely based on the end product. Fresh items intended for supermarkets will be prepared differently than those intended to be frozen or canned. Fresh produce is typically picked before it is ripe, so it stays fresh longer. The tomatoes you see in the store were likely still green when they were harvested and only began to turn red on the journey to their final destination.

After harvesting, the fruits and vegetables are sent to a packaging center for cleaning and processing. This could include clearing debris, and washing and sorting by size and quality. Many products are then waxed to maintain freshness and prevent bruising. The wax is what provides the quality shine you see in supermarkets. After processing, they are loaded into boxes and shipped.

What Preservatives Are Used?

Canned produce utilizes preservatives to prevent spoiling and oxidation, and they can be physical or chemical. Common chemical versions include citric, sodium sorbate or ascorbic acid. They can be added during processing or may occur naturally during the heating procedure.

How Are They Transported?

Most produce is shipped using refrigerated trucks. The products must be kept cold to avoid spoilage. Cooling the food slows the ripening process and reduces pathogens. Technically, the process should begin as soon as the products are harvested to maintain freshness.

Produce shipped internationally can also be transported by plane or ship depending on the type. Foods that store well, like oranges, will hold up as cargo on a boat, but high-value products like berries and asparagus are typically flown.

What Should You Look for With Packaging?

Packaging can offer consumers a lot of information about the product. If it qualifies as organic, food it will always include a description on the packaging or store sign. If there are no visible indications, then you should assume the item is not organic and has been treated with chemical pesticides. The packaging will also indicate the country of origin.

While many people believe produce packaging is unnecessary, it actually helps to prevent cross-contamination and spoilage. If one broccoli spoils, it won’t impact all the other foods around it. Packaging is essential for prepared foods, such as bagged salads, to maintain cleanliness and freshness.

Sliced fruits and vegetables, along with bagged leafy greens, are considered minimally processed to help the consumer. However, depending on the type of food, many begin losing their nutritional value after being chopped or sliced prior to consumption. Despite their seeming freshness, chopping actually begins the browning process and affects taste and texture. Additionally, if the premade item was prepared by the store, people have no way of knowing how well it was washed before being cut.

Farmers markets make transport of the items easier for customers. Farmers can divide the produce based on weight, which helps to create accurate pricing per container.

What Products Should You Avoid?

Imports are strictly scrutinized and evaluated, so before those foreign products arrive in your supermarket for stocking, they’ve already passed through several stages of the supply chain. This being said, buying foreign non-organic produce is a matter of preference. The food was deemed safe by authorities, but you may have reservations about buying items from countries known for having extreme air pollution or water pollution.

Additionally, where produce comes from affects its transportation time and subsequent ripeness when picked. You might discover that those ingredients aren’t nearly as fresh as you originally thought. Anything purchased outside of its normal growing season will need to be transported from another region. Buying things in season usually means fresher and better-tasting products.

When trying to decide between organic food and traditional, consider the Dirty Dozen list from EWG. These items would rank as the most toxic produce to avoid while shopping because of their extreme levels of pesticide residue. Instead of avoiding them entirely, simply purchase the organic version that only uses natural pesticides. Items with low pesticide exposure, like avocados, are safe to buy traditionally rather than organic without fear of the adverse effects.

Should You Only Buy Organic Food?

To qualify as organic, food must be grown without synthetic pesticides or other restricted chemicals. The ground which they’re growing upon must be free of chemical pesticides for three years, and farmers must take measures to prevent potential contamination from surrounding areas. If a synthetic substance is necessary, it must first be approved based on criteria relating to human health.

Nutritionally, organic foods are the same as their traditional non-organic counterparts. The difference is that they are non-GMO, which means the seeds were not genetically modified for drought or pest-resistance. They also have less harmful pesticides, thereby reducing human exposure. Research shows that and can even cause fertility issues and cognitive impairment.

What Should You Do to Prepare Your Produce?

Start by washing your hands to remove any bacteria and dirt that is present. Then, scrub the fruits and vegetables under running water. You should not use soap or detergent when washing — running water and a light scrub should remove harmful bacteria and pesticides. After you’ve cleaned the items, dry them and cut away any bruised areas.

You can also peel the outside leaves of items like lettuce or cabbage. Peeling will help remove other residues that were absorbed by the skin, but since most have a high nutritional value, you may choose to leave it on.

Steaming, broiling and grilling are all examples of healthy cooking methods that maximize the preservation of nutrients. When cooking, aim to use the least amount of salt possible and instead season with spices and herbs.

Does Fresh, Frozen or Canned Make a Difference?

Nutritionally, fresh or frozen vegetables tend to be the best, because some nutrients are lost during the canning process. Additionally, most canned fruits and vegetables include added salt or sugar, which is less beneficial when eating a healthy diet. Canned products are a healthy and inexpensive way to add produce to your diet, so if it’s the only option available, it’s better to eat canned foods than omit them entirely from your meal plan.

Frozen goods are a terrific alternative to fresh products because they often have the same nutritional value and were frozen at the peak of freshness. The downside is that the texture may change from the process, so you won’t always be able to use the products in the same way as you would fresh ingredients.

Fresh is usually best, as long as you can find organic ingredients and prepare the food in a sanitary way. However, when things are off-season, you may find that you prefer frozen varieties.

What Alternatives Do You Have?

Outside of buying produce from the supermarket, you can also choose to order directly from farmers. Farmers markets allow you access to a wide variety of fresh produce, as well as tasting in-season options and protecting the environment. In many cases, you’ll have the opportunity to meet the farmer and learn more about the food-production process. You can also leave knowing you’ve supported a small operation rather than a major retailer.

Another option is to grow fruits and vegetables at home. If you have space for a traditional garden, you’ll be in complete control of the growing process, and food couldn’t get more fresh. Some varieties can even be grown in planters if you don't have the space for a garden.

The Bottom Line

Learning facts about fruits and vegetables and the food-production process can help you make informed decisions. Ultimately, produce is an essential part of a balanced diet, so make sure you are eating dedicated portions each day. You can research online to find local farmers markets and talk to your grocery store’s produce attendant for more information about the food being sold.

Author's Bio: 

Ginger Abbot is a lifestyle, learning and education writer with a special interest in health and travel. Read more of her work on Classrooms.com