Updated: Jul 3, 2019
If you dabble in the wellness community, you have probably read about, experimented with, or are a committed drinker of celery juice – the new miracle remedy for what ails you.
The start of this trend traces back to Anthony William, an author known as the Medical Medium, who has written that celery juice is the key to treating dozens of chronic ailments ranging from eczema to migraines. Although most of these benefits are dismissed by many doctors and nutritionists, the celery craze has flourished with the help of celebrity endorsements, most notably Gwyneth Paltrow from Goop and Kim Kardashian.
As a recent article in The New York Times points out, there is no science to support his claims. But while researching this trend, I came across some effects of daily celery juice consumption that could potentially be dangerous to your health.
During the last few months, you may have seen a rise in articles and social media posts about a celery juice shortage. Some supermarkets reported that celery is practically flying off the shelves and that there are lines of health conscious consumers waiting to get their hands on this low-calorie vegetable to keep juicing. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cartons of celery traded at around $8-$12 in April of 2018, and by April of 2019, cartons were trading for $70.
When I reached out to a produce buyer at a major grocery store chain to get her input on the “celery shortage”, she noted that there was an issue with the crop due to weather. Then she added, “If you are juicing celery, you really only would use organic because of the large about of pesticides used in growing conventional celery.”
This statement caught me by surprise.
We all know that organic products are “healthier.” But I had never read much about exactly why. I consider myself a frugal shopper and find it hard to pay more for organic produce without evidence that it is safer. I naively assumed that if the food is in the store, it should not have anything poisonous on it. I have even been so trusting that sometimes I don’t even wash my fruits and vegetables - don’t judge.
I dug a bit more into what we know about pesticides, using celery as an example, and like most things, it turned out to be quite the controversial issue.
What we do know is that is that celery has been in the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual Dirty Dozen list, which ranks fresh produce based on their levels of pesticide contamination - after the produce has been washed - since 2004. What this means is that the pesticides are actually a part of the produce; not just something on the outside. EWG is an American activist group that specializes in research and advocacy in the areas of agricultural subsidies, toxic chemicals, drinking water pollutants, and corporate accountability.
Though EWG is a helpful resource, for every article I read supporting the Dirty Dozen list, I have seen a counter article that claims the Dirty Dozen list is making false claims and using fear tactics to influence consumers to buy organic.
The Dirty Dozen List Debate
To get to the heart of the issue, I did some research on the claims of the EWG and the criticism and can summarize the issue as such:
The USDA publishes an Annual Pesticide Data Program Summary in which the agency tests thousands of samples of both domestic and imported foods to ensure that the U.S. food supply is “safe”. The latest report, released in 2018 and using data from 2016, found that more than 99.5 percent of the samples tested had pesticide residues well below benchmark levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and 22 percent had no detectable residue.
After this report comes out, the EWG then conducts their own analysis to decide which are the fruits and vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticides overall.
Unfortunately, I found that much of the critique of the Dirty Dozen list was written by organizations that have connections to big Ag or consumer lobbyist groups. As documented by Marion Nestle in her book UnSavory Truth, industry has historically worked with scientists and writers to fund studies that substantiate their desired health claims. But in this case, the issue is not that the EWG is wrong; there are in fact detectable levels of pesticides in our food. The issue is that these levels are deemed “safe” by the EPA, and this is the part of the discussion we cannot take as truth.
The EPA is responsible for setting pesticide tolerances – which are maximum permissible residue levels for each and every pesticide used in or on food. The tolerance for an individual pesticide is tailored to reflect the specific scientific data, including toxicology studies, for that pesticide. One of the major issues is that the pesticide registration process requires companies to submit safety data, proposed uses and product labels to be approved by the EPA. However, the EPA does not conduct its own independent testing of pesticides.
This means that we are trusting the companies who produce these chemicals to conduct the safety testing for us, which has historically proven to be a major issue with tobacco companies, processed food and pharmaceuticals.
Recently, Monsanto lost multiple lawsuits in California after judges found that the company had known that Roundup weed killer is carcinogenic for several decades. Knowing this, it is hard to trust that the chemical companies have consumer’s safety in mind when dealing with pesticides.
The takeaway for me is that healthy debate is a good thing and that, as consumers, we should take nothing we read as gospel. The best thing we can do is carefully read the Dirty Dozen list report, read some of the critiques, read the actual Pesticide Program Report and then try and get through as many medical journals as we can to unearth some of the research about whether there are negative health effects of consuming pesticides, even at the level the EPA has deemed “safe”
Let’s arm ourselves with knowledge to make some of the best consumer choices we can, rather than blindly trusting one organization, person or source to tell us what to eat.
Below are some places to start.
JAMA Intern Med: Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake From Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assisted Reproductive Technology.