Bad Apple

Is It Safe To Eat Apples Right Off Trees At The Orchard? The 411 On This Favorite Fall Activity

Chill moms and food safety experts don’t exactly agree.

Written by Elizabeth Narins
Originally Published: 
Girls pick apples at an apple orchard.
Cavan Images/Getty

Strawberries in the patch. Tomatoes in the garden. Peaches at the orchard. Fruit just hits differently when you eat it off the bush, vine, or tree. As such, it should come as no surprise that every kid who's ever picked an apple wants to sample it right there and then. (And honestly? #Same.)

That said, I've longed feared the dirty dozen, the 12 fruits and veggies that harbor the highest levels of pesticides — chemicals designed to kill, repel, or control the growth of animal and plant life — according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG). So, when available, I'm pretty vigilant about buying organic produce, which is not grown using synthetic pesticides. I've also taught my toddler that we a-l-w-a-y-s wash fruits and veggies before eating because, you know, they're dirty — particularly when it comes to apples, which the EWG has placed 7th on their list of most contaminated produce.

Nevertheless, trying to stop a child from crunching into a fresh apple at the orchard is about as difficult as keeping their grubby hands in the shopping cart as you cruise down the candy aisle. In the name of picking my battles, I've always let him sink his teeth in freshly picked fruit without waiting to run it under the sink.

I know that this exception to the washing rule is lazy on my part, but in light of autumn's imminent arrival, I've been wondering: Is it also dangerous? So, I asked around to find out the worst that can happen if your kid eats one unwashed apple off the farm... or, like, one from each tree.

Damn, apples are dirty!

Everyone knows the only thing worse than finding a worm in your apple is finding half a worm — gross. As such, the USDA reports that pesticides like mancozeb, trifloxystrobin, and chlorantraniliprole (the most widely used) are applied to 81 percent of apple acres. While each farm has its own practices, diphenylamine is typically applied after harvest to prevent browning.

There's a reason why we don't willingly toss these ingredients into our grocery carts: While they're necessary to protect apple trees from pests and help orchards yield ample apples for all, they can pose danger to the nervous and endocrine systems, and even increase the risk of cancer among humans who exposed to high concentrations.

Fortunately, the Food Quality Protection Act requires the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to monitor pesticides on foods to ensure levels are safe for children and infants. However, there is some debate around legal limits versus safe limits — especially for children, says Alexis Temkin, PhD, senior toxicologist at Environmental Working Group. If one thing is for certain, it's that organic produce is safer than their conventionally grown counterparts.

What's the potential for damage?

Because kiddos are small and still developing, they're especially susceptible to pesticide exposure both on and off the farm. (Think about it: They're more likely to roll around in places where chemicals have been applied — like gardens, lawns, parks, schools, and childcare facilities — so exposure can add up more quickly.)

As the American Academy of Pediatrics notes in its ~official~ statement on pesticide exposure in children, pesticides have been linked to behavioral issues, impaired cognitive functioning, and even pediatric cancers in kids. Some experts worry pesticide exposure can also change children's neurodevelopment, contribute to allergies and asthma, and disrupt hormones — and the outlook is even worse for those exposed invitro: Pesticide exposure during pregnancy can increase the risk of low birth weight, congenital disabilities, and fetal death.

OK, OK, how much should I worry?

Lucky for those of us who typically pluck our apples off grocery shelves, "apples in the store go through a washing process that removes a natural waxy coating and most of the dangerous chemicals we are worried about," says Trevor Craig, corporate director of technical training and consulting at Microbac Laboratories, which works with food manufacturers to ensure food is safe to eat.

Of course, this doesn't help us apple pickers on the one day a year we play farmer with our families: Picking apples right off the tree could mean forgoing the aforementioned washing process (not ideal). Also unhelpful: "Pesticides aren't just found on the skin of apples and other fruits and vegetables, but can also be in the fruit," says Temkin.

As such, going organic really is the only surefire way to reduce overall pesticide exposure, whether you're harvesting apples yourself or simply stocking up at Trader Joe's. And even then, you should scrub-a-dub-dub before eating.

How helpful is washing?

Although the chemicals applied to apples to keep pests away, help them grow big and delicious, and prolong their shelf life can hang around on and even seep below apple skin, research shows that washing produce can help. Soaking in water or a mixture of water and baking soda for 12 to 15 minutes is more effective than using plain water or soaking in a bleach solution.

If you don't have an extra 15 minutes, follow EPA recs to wash and scrub produce under running water, which has an abrasive effect, or peel it, which can help remove pesticides, bacteria, and, oh yeah, dirt, which is unwelcome in fruit salads for obvious reasons. (Just know that peeling removes some of the fruit's most potent nutrients and doesn't eliminate those pesticides that seep further into the fruit.)

But even if you ditch the peels, there's no 100% effective way to make sure there's not a lick of pesticide in or on your apples, Craig tells me. Good news: "There are certainly safe amounts of exposure to pesticides," he says.

Back to the farm, where you almost definitely did not schlep a peeler and box of baking soda: What's a mom with hungry, impatient kids to do? Since unwashed apples are likely to have a higher concentration of chemicals you don't want your kids eating, anything you do to clean the outside of the apple before your kids taste-test can help remove some of the scary stuff — like a quick scrub using H2O from a water bottle and a wipe with a burp cloth, paper towel, or shirt.

As for whatever pesticides are left? "Health harms associated with pesticide exposure are typically associated with repeated exposure over time," says Temkin. "Exposure to a pesticide does not guarantee that someone's health will be affected."

If you're still concerned — and hello, you're still reading — visit a certified organic farm or one that doesn't spray synthetic pesticides, Temkin suggests. (You can always call ahead to find out.)

Is one “bad apple” really a big deal?

The danger linked to pesticide exposure is dose-dependent, so the lower the exposure, the lower the risk. To put things in perspective, the USDA estimates that the average American eats nine pounds of apples a year (and your kids may eat even more if they plow through apple sauce as quickly as mine do). If one or two of those apples they eat aren't washed thoroughly because your kid goes berserk at the orchard, they'll probably be just fine.

Common sense dictates that choosing a farm or an apple at the store that is certified organic and washing produce before consuming really is the best bet for reducing exposure to potentially harmful pesticides. If you can't afford organic or don't live near an organic farm, or truly cannot stop your child from eating an apple before you wash it, no one is saying to forgo apples or apple picking altogether — conventionally grown fruit is still better than no fruit!

If you end up on a non-organic farm for apple picking, it's worth taking special care to scrub your apples... especially if you come home with a lot of 'em. The AAP also suggests changing your clothes and shoes after hanging around in agricultural environments where pesticides are present. So, you can leave your apple-picking clothing (and anxiety?) at the door.

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