You might feel good about yourself when you pay the extra dollar for that organic peach, but is it actually making any sort of difference in terms of your exposure to unsavory chemicals? A new study says yes–and that it’s even possible to predict your pesticide exposure based on how much conventional or organic produce you’ve eaten.
The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, analyzed the exposure to organophosphates–an insecticide frequently used on conventional produce in the U.S.–of almost 4,500 people in six cities throughout the country. The result: Study participants who ate more organic produce had significantly lower pesticide exposure than those who ate lots of conventional produce.
Not all kinds of produce are equal, however. People who ate conventionally grown items exposed to more pesticides during the growing process (like tomatoes, peaches, and nectarines) had higher levels of organophosphate exposure than people who munched on foods with less pesticide exposure (like avocados, and other fruits and vegetables with skins).
This in and of itself isn’t surprising; other studies have shown that eating organic produce is linked to lower pesticide exposure. In this study, however, researchers came up with a way to predict pesticide exposure based on questions about a person’s dietary habits. They verified their predictions with urine metabolite samples from study participants.
“We can collect a urine sample, get a snapshot in time of what you ate in the last day or two, and see the relationship between what we measure and what we predict,” says Cynthia Curl, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor in Boise State University’s School of Allied Health Sciences (when the study was conducted, she was at the University of Washington).
Eventually, this research could turn into a tool that anyone could use to predict their exposure to organophosphates. But the next step for the research is looking at the relationship in the same group of people between pesticide exposure and negative health effects–specifically, neurocognitive effects. Past studies have linked organophosphate exposure to Alzheimer’s disease and ADHD, among other things. “We’re still looking to understand how much of a difference [pesticide exposure] reduction makes. This study moves us towards that goal,” says Curl.