Bill Harris, M.D. | Q&A

Which fruits and vegetables are relatively safer to eat?
Q&A with Bill Harris, M.D.

Q. Dear Dr.Harris,
I have been reading a lot lately about the high levels of pesticides in many fruits and vegetables,especially apples,pears and grapes. I do try to buy organic produce as much as i can but many times,it is not as affordable as the non-organic ones. How safe is a diet mainly based on fruits and vegetables if all produce purchased is not organic? Which fruits and vegetables are relatively safer to eat? Do pesticides penetrate the fruit/veg,which means peeling will be insufficient?How do we make it safer for consumption?

A. Dear Uma,

This is a Groucho Marx question. Somebody asked Groucho, "How's your wife?" and Groucho answered, "Compared to what?" You're asking "How safe are fruits and vegetables?" and the Groucho answer would be "Compared to what? Meat, eggs, dairy, poultry, fish?"

In a pinch you have to eat something regardless of how contaminated it may be. Pesticides are concentrated at each stage of the food chain so the contamination is about 10 times worse in animal foods than in plant foods. Since I'm already a vegan I haven't pursued this matter much beyond buying organic produce whenever possible, but if you want all the details read:

Steinman, David
Diet for a Poisoned Planet: How to Choose Safe Foods for You and Your
Ballantine Books
New York 1990
LOCC 91-92140
ISBN 0-345-37465-7

I think Steinman implies that most of the pesticides stay on the outside of the plant and that would square with the reason for their being there in the first place-to repel insects before they can bite in. By contrast the animals are plant predators so the pesticides on the plants wind up inside the animals and since they're fat soluble they end up in fat storage depots.

The question, "Which fruits and vegetables are relatively safer to eat?" I think should be re-phrased to "Which fruits and vegetables are most nutritious?" and then do your best to find the organic ones.

Hope this helps.


-William Harris, M.D.

William Harris MD received a degree in physics from the University of California Berkeley, where he earned Phi Beta Kappa honors. He received his degree in medicine from the University of California at San Francisco, and received his postgraduate training at San Diego County Hospital. He holds a Medical License in the State of Hawaii. He has been an Emergency Department physican since 1963, and the Director of the Kaiser Permanente Vegan Lifestyle Clinic on Oahu until his retirement in 1998. Dr. Harris is the author of The Scientific Basis of Vegetarianism.

In addition, he was the 1950 Big Ten Trampoline Champion, is an accomplished hangglider and commercial pilot, and at age 70 became a skydiver with 108 jumps to date. Dr. Harris has been vegetarian since 1950, and vegan since 1963.

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