I’ve really been enjoying squeezing lemon into my water lately and dropping in the wedge to flavor the next refill a bit.
I’m already changing my new habit.
I’m a pretty faithful produce washer, but as luck would have it, this week I cut a corner while getting my son’s lunch ready. My hands are pretty raw from washing them 5 million times a day and the fact that the first day of spring had a zero-degree wind chill here.
So I didn’t wash the orange.
Imagine my surprise when the box of oranges I bought at Costco later that same day (coincidence? I think not!) had this plastered on the top:
“Treated to maintain freshness in transit with one or more of the following: Orthophenylphenate, Thiabendazole.”
I couldn’t help noticing THAT.
And sure enough, the box at home that the unwashed orange that morning had come from said similar on the side:
“Treated to maintain freshness in transit with one or more of the following: Imazalil, Sodium O’Phenylphenate, Thiabendazole. Coated with food-grade vegetable-, beeswax-x and/or lac-resin-based wax or resin.”
I’ve always known that even the fruits with thick rinds, like a cantaloupe for example, need to be washed before cutting. The whole thing goes on your cutting board, and just the action of the knife cutting through can move dirt and bacteria from the outside directly to the fruit.
I think God wanted me to have a little reminder (and lesson!) about what our food system does to citrus in particular this week, since I’m already thinking critically about Natural Health Month here at KS. (top photo source)
I never really think about what exactly is on my fruits and veggies, I guess. Seeing that list of awful-sounding chemicals shocked me.
Want to know what they are?
- Imazalil – fungicide
- Thiabendazole – fungicide and parasiticide
- Sodium O’Phenylphenate (aka Orthophenylphenate) – disinfectant
I suppose it’s kind of a nice perk to have to throw away fewer oranges, grapefruits and lemons because they’re all moldy. But what’s the cost?
Here’s what else all those chemicals do:
- Imazalil – carcinogenic (cancer-causing) and a developmental or reproductive toxin (source), and it stays on oranges at levels that can reach higher than a 44-pound child should be exposed to in one day (50 μg)! (source and graph: What’s on my Food?) It also is eco-toxic and kills fish. (source)
- Thiabendazole - also a human medication, likely carcinogenic, and disturbing to thyroid hormone levels in high doses (source). In the environment, it stays in the soil a long time and is extremely toxic to fish, but the EPA doesn’t think that will be a concern, since it probably won’t get into drinking water (source). Really?
- Sodium O’Phenylphenate (aka Orthophenylphenate) – carcinogen (source), suspected gastrointestinal or liver toxicant, but nearly half of the basic 8 toxicity tests haven’t even been run on it yet (source). The growers have to rinse the fruit well with water after a minute of exposure, or else even the fruit will an injury from “toxic levels” of the chemical! (source)
And this is before I even get into the fact that the skin is waxed, too, which seems like it would make it harder to get the chemicals off.
Why So Many Chemicals on the Fruit?
The government mandates some sort of treatment for any citrus moving interstate. There are options to use hydrogen peroxide, but I certainly didn’t see that listed – which wouldn’t even have to be rinsed, I’m sure! – on the boxes.
I just keep thinking about those lemon wedges floating around in my water all day, soaking off all this crap into my drink and my body. I picture my little guy gnawing on a lemon wedge because he thinks it’s funny.
And in a restaurant, where I love to get lemons too, how well do you think they’re washed before they’re cut (if at all)?
The Good News
None of these chemicals are approved for use in organic produce, so IF you can find (and afford) organic lemons, oranges, and grapefruits, you don’t have to worry about them.
Unfortunately, antibiotics are used in even organic pear and apple growing – read more here.
For the rest of us, perhaps it’s time to use a scrub brush on that citrus instead of a quick obligatory rinse. I’m going to resurrect my habit of using a squirt of some sort of produce wash (I tested and reviewed 8 different commercial and homemade produce washes) on ALL produce, even the thick-skinned stuff.
When I find organic citrus, I’ll definitely zest the peels and freeze the zest, since I really don’t want to be directly consuming the waxes and chemicals. (Have you seen the top 10 foods in my freezer to speed up dinner prep? I should add “zest” to the list.)
I’ll also peel oranges instead of cutting them into cute smile-wedges for my kids. (How many times have you seen schools serve orange wedges with the peel, and how well if at all were those washed???)
And finally, you won’t see a wedge of lemon floating elegantly in my drink anymore…but I will still squeeze in the juice to get the health benefits of lemon water, after I wash it well.
What’s your produce washing philosophy? Does this concern you?
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