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Did kale lose its superstar status?

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce was recently released, catapulting kale to a place of infamy on the so-called “Dirty Dozen list, where it joined strawberries, spinach, nectarines and apples in the top five.  The “Dirty Dozen™,” as well as the “Clean Fifteen" lists, released annually and based on EWG’s analysis of data from the United States Department of Agriculture, characterizes pesticide residue present on non-organic produce after washing. The list provides consumers with a potential strategy to avoid ingestion of pesticide residue.

Although it hadn’t been included in testing in a decade, kale’s appearance on this annual list calls into question its recent superstar status as a nutrient-packed ingredient in healthy salads, smoothies and even as a snack food. The vast majority of kale samples registered the presence of pesticides, including one banned in Europe as a potential carcinogen.  Though the list generated a flurry of headlines, the EWG still urges consumers to continue eating produce, although they do suggest using organic produce when available and within the family grocery budget. 

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Consumer information around food ingredients, intended and otherwise, provides the basis for healthy and safe dietary choices. The findings concerning kale will strike many as particularly troubling. 92 percent of the kale samples were found to have two or more pesticide residues on them. More broadly, the USDA tests discovered 225 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on common fruits and vegetables.

Despite those results, consumers should treat such news with some skepticism. For many Americans, especially those with food allergies, there may be bigger concerns to consider when grocery shopping.

For those with food allergies, allergen avoidance isn’t a choice, but an essential practice to avoid allergen exposure. People with allergies require precise and accurate information about their allergens provided in easily accessible and consistent language. All too often, labeling is confusing, unclear and sometimes downright wrong, spurring recalls to avert unintentional exposure and possible life-threatening reactions.

For those with sesame allergies, the dirty dozen list includes grocery staples like bread, hot dog buns, hamburger buns, bagels, crackers, cookies, granola, breakfast bars, bread crumbs, breaded foods, energy bars and various ethnic foods, just to name a few.  In truth, there are far more sesame-containing products than a dozen. Allergic consumers, whose primary strategy for preventing allergic reaction is food avoidance and reliance upon existing labeling laws, depend on labels to be accurate and complete.  That simple grocery list for a family barbecue becomes quite complicated when trying to avoid sesame and “safe” breads and buns, for example, are discussed frequently on allergy social media sites.

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 provides allergen labeling for eight allergens, but does not currently include sesame.  The FDA is exploring ways to improve allergen labeling, including additional advisory statements and those improvements are welcome and necessary. 

No doubt, pesticides on our fruits and vegetables should be taken seriously. Yet it’s worth noting that each year a similar list of contaminated fruits and vegetables is produced only to later be discredited by the recommendation that people still need to eat more fruits and vegetables, despite whatever risk is posed by pesticides.

While the EWG’s lists arm consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions about food purchases, it also points to how we need better food labeling in general. People managing food allergies should expect clear, unambiguous allergen labeling that makes the grocery store less of a minefield. 

Josie Howard-Ruben, PhD  is an assistant professor at Rush University College of Nursing and advocates for food allergy awareness, education and legislation. She is a Public Voices fellow through The OpEd Project.