September 15, 2022 – Many brands of fruit leather, a popular children’s snack, have detectable levels of pesticides, according to a new report from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving human health and the environment. Many dried fruit snacks also have detectable levels of pesticides.
The findings were published today in a report titled “Fruit leather: A snack that’s sometimes full of pesticides and sugar.”
The conclusion of the Environmental Working Group: “Fresh fruit will always be better,” says Sydney Evans, science analyst for the group and co-author of the report. To minimize exposure to pesticides, dried fruit snacks are better than fruit leather, she says, and organic is better than non-organic or conventional products.
But others have blasted the report. “This scaremongering has to stop,” says Teresa Thorne, executive director of the Alliance for Food and Farming, a nonprofit organization that represents organic and conventional farmers who grow fruit and vegetables. The values found, she says, are well below the standards set as acceptable.
The Environmental Working Group commissioned an independent laboratory to test 37 samples of organic and non-organic fruit leather from 10 brands, as well as 30 samples of dried fruit, another popular take-out snack, from 16 brands. (Fruit leathers are made by dehydrating fruit puree into a glossy sheet with a leather-like texture.)
None of the samples tested were above federal pesticide tolerance levels, says Evans. But the group believes these tolerance levels are too high.
Detectable levels of pesticides were found in all 26 samples of the non-organic (conventional) fruit skins tested and in half of the non-organic dried fruit samples, according to the Environmental Working Group, whose funding sources include organic food companies.
But some of the organic products evaluated also had similar or higher concentrations of pesticides than conventional products. For example, Trader Joe’s Organic Apple Strawberry Fruit Wrap had a pesticide concentration of 247 parts per billion (ppb), while Bob Snail’s Apple Strawberry Stripe, a conventional product, had 106 ppb.
A sample of Stretch Island raspberry leather contained 17 pesticides, the most of any leather tested. When the researchers looked at the total amount of pesticides, also known as the total pesticide concentration, samples from That’s It, Stretch Island, and Trader Joe’s had the highest total concentrations, on average.
The most common pesticides found were the fungicides pyrimethanil, fludioxonil and thiabendazole, and the insecticide acetamiprid. Exposure to pesticides has been linked to cancer, hormonal imbalances, effects on the reproductive and nervous systems, and birth defects, among others.
“For me, it’s take away [that] fresh fruit is always better,” says Evans when faced with a choice between fruit leather and dried fruit. If that’s not an option, she recommends choosing dried fruit snacks over fruit leathers. The Environmental Working Group’s assessment of 30 dried fruit products found that conventionally grown dried cranberries, dates, figs, mangoes and plums had undetectable levels of pesticides, while the highest levels were found in raisins and dried strawberries, cherries and apples.
Fruit strips with the highest levels of pesticides often had apples as the first ingredient, says Evans. Apples are #5 on the 2022 Dirty Dozen list, the annual ranking of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides produced by the group.
The process of dehydrating fruit to make the fruit leathers “also drastically increases the concentration of the natural sugars that the snack contains,” the group says, resulting in far more sugar than a similarly sized serving of fresh fruit would have. It’s also recommended to avoid fruit leather and dried fruit with added sugars and additives like flavor enhancers, food coloring, and corn syrup.
The Environmental Protection Agency sets tolerance levels for pesticide residues on food. The US Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program is a national program for monitoring pesticide residues.
“Nothing they found is surprising,” says Kaci Buhl, associate professor and director of the Pesticide Safety Education Program at Oregon State University Extension, Corvallis, who reviewed the report for WebMD.
The results also don’t support the advice to avoid the fruit leather altogether, she says.
“Parents shouldn’t worry as long as fruit leathers are consumed in moderation as part of a varied and balanced diet,” says Buhl. (Organic produce is also grown with pesticides, she notes.)
Others pointed out what they saw as discrepancies in the calculations. For example, a 35-gram (1.2 ounce) That’s It Blueberry Fruit Bar was found to have a total pesticide concentration of 3,541 ppb, while its 20-gram (0.7 ounce) Mini Blueberry Fruit Bar, containing the same ingredients, had one pesticide -Total concentration of 89.
The fruit leather and dried fruit snacks are especially handy when those who live far from a grocery store are short of fresh fruit, Buhl says.
“We need to stop scaring people off of the foods they enjoy, especially when it comes to healthy foods like fruits and vegetables,” Thorne says.
On the Alliance’s consumer information site, their pesticide calculator estimates that a child could eat 340 servings of apples per day without any adverse effects from pesticides, “even if the apple has the highest pesticide residues recorded by the USDA for apples.”
WebMD reached out to companies for comment. Stretch Island did not respond and That’s It declined to comment on the results.