The 10 Most Contaminated Fruits and Vegetables

A rotten orange and banana.

We’re a strange bunch, us human beings: shuttling to and fro from this health trend to that, forever in search of the best means to prolonging our lives and living to the fullest with vim and vigor. So we try to eat our best: mouthfuls of fruits and veggies straight from the farm or as “organic” as they come.

Yet somewhere in the transition from the moment our produce is plucked and packaged and then served on our plate, it gets contaminated. Yeah, we know pesticides are the usual suspects in the majority of these cases. But those of us who frequent health blogs and sites like this pride ourselves with being hyper-vigilant.

In other words, we tell ourselves we’re clean and there are no stinking pesticides on our food. But what if your fruits and vegetables are contaminated from other sources? What say you then? Here’s a list of 10 of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables you probably didn’t realize were contaminated.

A two-column table listing fruits and vegetables with high and low contamination risks.

10. Indian Mangoes, Aubergines, Taro Plant and Gourd

Mangoes at the fruit section of a store.

Here’s a Hollywood sort of horror story with a Bollywood bent. Our favorite top of the day fruit mango, favorite plant for grilling the aubergine, and our usually unsuspecting gourds can be teeming with life. But not the life you imagine for a healthy looking piece of fruit.

Instead the EU recently discovered more than 207 species of insect that aren’t native to the European Union in produce shipped from India. Which figured prominently? Fruit flies. Or for our purposes Bactrocera cucurbitae and Drosophila suzukii which are native to Asian countries such as India.

So the EU has decided to ban such imports. But that doesn’t free the North American market from gastronomical disaster of the insect kind. Your aubergine may have some stowaways.

How It Happens

Images demonstrating fruit fly sting marks on fruit and vegetables.

Fruit fly larvae embed in the meat of the fruit and vegetables, almost like a perfect sort of incubation. Unbeknownst to us, our seemingly fresh stock of fruits and veggies that were otherwise considered organic and free of pesticides is hiding what can’t be glimpsed on the surface. An infestation. What’s worse is once they get in your home and mature, they wreak havoc on the rest of your food supply.

Alternatives

Go local. Buy farm fresh fruits and vegetables from your farming neighbors. Do the necessary groundwork to know who isn’t using pesticides and whose crop is safe from insect infestation.

9. Potatoes and other root vegetables

Inside of a contaminated and rotten potato.

Forget what you’ve heard about going organic. Even if the farm from whence your produce came is pesticide free, that doesn’t make it contamination free. Potatoes are root vegetables, meaning they soak up their nutrients through the soil. See where this is going?

So if by chance the soil is contaminated by any sort of bacteria that may even have been transported on the work boot sole of your friendly neighborhood farmer, the moment it comes into contact with the root of the plant all bets are off.

The Not So Usual Suspects: Ghosts of landfills past. Some of the urban gardens we use to find our quiet moment of zen were once places teeming with chemical and industrial waste. Landfills date back to the 1800s.

But many of those previous landfills have been since covered up, turned into thriving communities, and made pretty with today’s urban garden. What residue remains of those landfill past lives could be anything from lead to petroleum and tar.

Potatoes are high in slow churning starch for those post workout meals…and possibly lead which is harmful to the brain, cadmium which can cause kidney damage, and tars which can cause skin cancer.

Alternatives

Find out the backstory to your farm and produce. Produce traceability may be new vocabulary to many of us but it is your key to knowing if your produce is farmed in less than savory conditions. A healthy cycle of harvesting is key.

8. Beets, Carrots and Squash…and even Cantaloupe

Listeria extracted from cantaloupe

Just like potatoes, root vegetables such as beets, carrots and squash can be victim to soil-borne contaminants. But one of the scarier menaces on the block is not an industrial threat but a bacteria rather. Listeria is found in soil and water, sometimes through infected animals and manure.

It commonly is known to root in raw meats but it can equally infect vegetables planted in contaminated soil. The roots and stalks are vulnerable to the bacteria. And once they’ve been contaminated the threat is enlarged for cross contamination. So even cantaloupe as recently evidenced in the US can be at risk.

Why It’s Dangerous

Approximately 2500 in the US become ill with listeriosis each year. And of that number 500 die. At particular risk are pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.

How to Avoid It

Wash your produce thoroughly. Skin and peel it if possible. Avoid cross contamination by thoroughly washing utensils used with the produce. Wash your hands immediately afterward.

7. Mangoes, Rice and Bananas

Person harvesting bananas from a tree in Haiti.

Haiti is still reeling from its 2010 earthquake that devastated the already food security strapped country. For Haitian Americans who frequent their homeland in search of lush produce to bring back to the states, it’s an even sadder story to see the decline in food crops.

Haiti’s cash cows of bananas and mangoes have suffered a devastating blow. Thankfully companies like Dole are helping to try and restabilize Haiti’s banana market. But it’s not the obvious infrastructure problems or the widespread poverty at the root of the issue. The legion of UN peace workers who were stationed in the country for the relief effort allegedly brought a wave of cholera down upon the vulnerable nation.

Cholera is a waterborne illness that can be transmitted through human feces. To date hundreds of thousands (more than 650,000 ill and 8000 dead) of victims have been stricken in Haiti alone. But imagine the repercussions from exports that still managed to reach the US. Mangoes, bananas and rice all run the heavy risk of being contaminated in a post earthquake, post UN peacekeeper cholera stricken Haiti.

Symptoms

Person escorting his partner to a hospital using a wheelbarrow in Haiti.

Cholera causes cramps and diarrhea in mild cases and vomiting, leg cramps and death in severe cases. A person gets it through eating food (such as bananas and mangoes) or water contaminated by the bacteria.

Why It’s a Risk

Bananas or mangoes contaminated by human waste such as fecal matter may possibly exhibit no discerning warning markers. It may otherwise seem pristine. But days later it can sweep through its victims without warning. There are daily shuttles between Haiti and Florida, spiriting travellers on day trips to shop and bring back produce to the US.

How to Avoid It

If buying fruit that may have been contaminated in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, do as the CDC says and “boil it, cook it, peel it or leave it.”

6. Organic Chia Seeds

Chia seeds are rich in omega 3s and taken from the chia plant of the mint family. They have a nutty taste and are all the rage with those of us wishing to follow a healthy eating regimen rich in fiber and nutrients. So it would be no surprise to anyone that organic chia seeds are quite the hot ticket right now.

Only problem is that huge swathes of organic chia seeds have been contaminated with salmonella in the US and Canada. It doesn’t only burn to buy organic thinking you’re managing to avoid pesticide contamination, it can be downright devastating to your health when in essence what you’ve purchased is contaminated with salmonella.

A graphic explaining the characteristics of a salmonella infection.

What’s at Stake

Just what are you at risk of physically when you purchase organic chia seeds possibly infected with salmonella? Here’s the grocery list: diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps 14 to 72 hours after infection; possible infection of the bloodstream by way of transmission through the intestines that requires hospitalization for severe cases. Normal cases usually last 4 to 7 days.

5. Green Tea

Wait. What? Yeah you’ve read that right. The usual diatribe about contaminated fruits and veggies harps on a list of pesticide rich apples and melons, insecticide drenched cauliflower and spinach, or chemical saturated strawberries: But green tea leaves aren’t usually vetted for being contaminated.

Made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, the majority of green tea is produced in Japan and China, with some exceptions being a few farms in Portugal that can actually support green tea production. It’s a hydration staple of the health nut enthusiast, like most of us in the readership. So why is it on our list?

The plant itself has a natural ability to absorb fluoride into its leaves through the surrounding soil. So tea is a natural source of fluoride. But many teas, including American brands, have been found to exceed the FDA standard of 1.4 to 2.4 ppms and the EPA standard of 4mg/L .

What’s the Risk

Dental fluorosis or even skeletal fluorosis. But what is truly damning is skeletal fluorosis can resemble arthritis. And hence a number of tea drinkers may be lead to thinking that they are arthritis sufferers when in fact they’ve been suffering a bone disease brought on by their favorite beverage.

4. Herbs From China

Various Chinese herbs surrounded by tablets with Chinese symbols.

Chinese exports or even their own domestic products don’t benefit from the heavy lifting of extensive screening for contaminants. And when they do, the laser sharp scrutiny is usually trained on the usual suspects and certainly not the unusual ones.

Enter exotic herbs culled from the earth in China. No one, least of all alternative medicine gurus stocked up to the gills in goods from the east, would suspect that these fine exotic herbs could be polluted or contaminated. At play are two very alarming risk factors: heavy metals and pollutants. In the way of heavy metal poisoning risks, some plants have been rooted in soil heavily saturated with lead, arsenic and cadmium; a sure recipe for disaster.

China doesn’t currently avail itself of a statewide metals test to enforce a consistent standard across the board when it comes to contaminated fruits and vegetables. And as for polluted herbs, do the math. China’s carbon footprint alone bears the brunt of posing a serious danger to ozone depletion and global warming. Those same pollutants one sees floating in the opaque Beijing air are also embedded in the herbs we use to infuse our teas and juices in the US.

What You Should Know

China isn’t the only herb market on the block. Much of what you’re looking for can be sourced from elsewhere. And if all else fails, buy American.

3. Hawaiian Fruit and Vegetables

Fruits from Hawaii at a market stand.

This category leaves a wide swathe of possibilities for contamination. But if we get specific, we’re talking melons and leafy vegetables and any of the primary Hawaiian produce that may have been infested with parasites. And when we’re talking parasites we’re strictly talking rat lungworm which can cause eosinophilic meningitis.

Where most of the other items on our list can be pinpointed to dodgy garden soils or cross-contamination, rat lung worm finds its way into our produce by way of invasive species such as South Asian rats which aren’t originally indigenous to Hawaii.

So in this case, buying American doesn’t preclude you from falling victim to contaminated produce. It actually leaves you wide open to possibly your worst nightmare.

Washing produce thoroughly isn’t unfortunately enough in this case. Some victims of rat lungworm go for long periods of time without ever knowing they’ve been contaminated. The larvae of the parasite can be transported through rat fecal matter that may contaminate produce on the back of trucks, in storage bays, shops, or in transit.

What to Do

Thoroughly vet the origin of your produce. If it seems questionable, keep it simple and buy locally.

2. Berries

Various berries in bowls with some bananas.

One would think that berries and e. coli only have a slight history of panicking the masses. But actually there is quite a torrid love affair between the two that stretches back decades. E. coli outbreaks as result of consuming contaminated berries is not a recent phenomenon.

In fact, we tend to overlook this threat for headline grabbing pesticide stories instead.

But if we’re really being honest with ourselves we’d realize that the potential for exposure and falling ill are probably greater than from eating berries doused with pesticide. For instance, in the case of the Oregon outbreak of 2011, it is widely suspected that deer might have been the culprit in contaminating the food supply. Such a variable as deer could put any community with a deer population at risk.

While you’ve probably been exposed to pesticides at length and shook it off like nothing happened, think back to the last time you had a bout with e coli poisoning. Not fun, right? Strawberries, blackberries and blueberries have been contaminated through a myriad number of ways with the result always equaling e. coli poisoning.

What to Do

A warning sign reminding the population to wash their hands.

Though washing may not be enough, wash your produce thoroughly. Some E. coli bacteria cannot be removed however from produce. So wash your hands with appropriate antibacterial soap. And avoid cross-contamination by limiting the exposure of your unwashed produce to other areas of your home.

1. Pre-Washed Organic Leafy Greens

Pre-washed organic leafy greens with and without their packaging.

We’ve covered the risks involved with drinking tap water here before. But imagine your risks of exposure to pollutants and contaminants when your organic produce is “pre-washed” from the tap. Some random inspections of organic farms found some with leaky or rusty faucets. Others found cross-contaminants in the same area where produce was stored and washed.

And if we remember anything about our look into local water supplies, water from the tap can be teeming with anything from lead to chlorine to fecal matter. So imagine the shock to your system when you go to the grocery store to buy a package of “pre-washed” organic greens that have been washed in a system that still pipes in water from the local water supply. Unless the wash uses some sort of ionizing system, it still has the same result. If it quacks like a duck…

A graphic demonstrating various chemicals that could be present in tap water.

What to Do

Use an antibacterial fruit and vegetable wash. You can typically find this product at your local grocery store. Before it goes in your mouth, thoroughly wash it with this product.

Some Other General Things You Can Do to Avoid Any of the Contaminants on This List:

  • Scrub produce with rinds or waxy skin with a brush
  • Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables then wash
  • Sprouts with seeds should always be on your radar for E. Coli contamination because there is no way to remove the contaminant if it has gotten in to the seeds (even in your own back garden)
  • Always wash berries thoroughly. Never simply rinse
  • Make sure you have good garden tools and that you keep them clean
  • Try to always buy produce fresh and locally: you minimize your risks and help to stimulate your local economy.

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