Opinion: Fruit, vegetable consumption data show impact of misinformation

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Keith Nunes 2019 
KANSAS CITY — Pesticide use and pesticide residues remain an impediment to intake of fruits and vegetables in the United States. It is an example of how consumer misperceptions about the “cleanliness” of the foods they eat hinder them from improving the overall quality of their diet.

The 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advises consumers to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into their diets as part of a healthy dietary pattern. Adults should consume 1.5–2 cup-equivalents of fruits and 2–3 cup-equivalents of vegetables daily.

Yet only 10% of the adult population achieves the target, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Price and a lack of convenience are two reasons why many Americans don’t get enough fruits and vegetables, but research recently published by the International Food Information Council (IFIC) also shines a light on consumer misperceptions about pesticides.

Ninety-one percent of Americans consider how their food is grown when making purchasing decisions, and food safety and the use of pesticides are the leading concerns when considering how food is grown. Nutritional content, use of agricultural technology, environmental sustainability, animal welfare and farm workers welfare were other listed concerns.

Nearly 60% of those surveyed by IFIC are concerned with pesticide use. They believe consuming foods grown with pesticides are bad for their health, with 36% believing the pesticides used today are “more toxic than they have ever been” and 35% believing pesticides are bad for the environment.

Of the consumers who are not concerned about pesticide use, 35% said they rinse their fresh produce, and 29% “trust farmers to use pesticides responsibly.”

Sadly, when a consumer is concerned about pesticide use, the majority simply avoid purchasing or consuming vegetables and fruits altogether, according to the survey.

Consumer concern about pesticide use in the United States is misplaced because the federal government through the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Agriculture sets limits and monitors them. For example, in 2022 (the latest data available) over 99% of the samples tested by the USDA had residues below the tolerances established by the EPA with 27.6% having no detectable residue. Only 0.53% of the total samples tested had residues exceeding the EPA’s tolerance levels. Fresh and processed fruits and vegetables accounted for 79.8% of the total 10,665 samples collected in 2022.

“This research highlights gaps in not only consumer understanding of pesticides but also how harmful misinformation can further widen the fruit and vegetable consumption gap in the US and around the world,” said Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, president and chief executive officer of IFIC.

Misinformation has taken a toll on many segments of the food and beverage industry, ranging from not just fruits and vegetables but grain-based foods (carbohydrates and pesticides), meat and poultry (pathogens and animal welfare), and dairy (antibiotic residues and animal welfare).

It would be naïve to suggest there is a simple fix to what has become a complex problem, but the damage done by those who peddle in such misinformation must be recognized. It also must be recognized that the problem is going to worsen as more people are exposed to such messages through social media and other emerging forms of mass communication that make it harder to differentiate reality from fiction.

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