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Why even Rice Chex makes me nervous

Updated: February 25, 2013 2:12AM

As our nation fights an obesity epidemic, we are bombarded with messages about healthful eating.

Yet the messages are mixed.

One day we are encouraged to eat blueberries because they are high in fiber and antioxidants. The next day we hear that blueberries absorb dangerous pesticides.

Last year blueberries made the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. Apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries and grapes also made the list.

The group also came up with a Clean 15 list for fruits and vegetables that rank lowest in pesticides. Onions top that list. But who wants to bite into an onion?

The good news is that sweet corn, pineapples and avocados also made the “clean” list. I had heard that fruits and vegetables with peels are more likely to be free of pesticides than those without, and the lists seem to support that.

Maybe we are better off ignoring the lists altogether.

“We have the safest food supply in the world,” dietitian Melissa Joy Dobbins, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says.

It’s not a perfect system, she adds, but the nutritional value of berries, as well as other fruits and vegetables, outweigh the pesticide risk.

To play it safe and avoid pesticides, we are often told to buy organic, a buzz word that came up for Dobbins and other nutrition experts at a recent conference.

Terms such as organic, local and sustainable were deemed elitist by those experts because they are higher-priced and inaccessible to most Americans.

“Organic doesn’t mean pesticide free,” Dobbins says. “It means they use pesticides on an approved list. There are 2,500 approved pesticides on that list. It’s not all black and white.”

Some foods do require caution. Don’t be quick to grab a grapefruit if you take medicine to lower your cholesterol. Actually, grapefruits interact with several medications, and that list may or may not include Viagra, which treats erectile dysfunction.

“The clinical information is incomplete, but men who take Viagra should be aware that grapefruit juice might boost blood levels of the drug,” the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide tells us. “That could be a good thing for some men with erectile dysfunction, but it could trigger headaches, flushing, or low blood pressure.”

Not to minimize potential risk, but there’s a joke in there somewhere.

In November, Consumer Reports published a report on arsenic levels in rice and related products, “many at worrisome levels.” I haven’t had my favorite cereal, Rice Chex, since. Dobbins reminded me that one study doesn’t answer all of our questions. Still, I can’t get over the association between arsenic and poison.

Even snacking requires caution, apparently. Reach for fruit instead of a candy bar, we have been told, but a dentist will tell you to avoid oranges and other citrus fruits as snacks. When eaten alone, the acidity of citrus fruit is tough on tooth enamel, according to the American Dental Association.

Here’s a note to mothers who feed raisins to their toddlers: The stickiness of raisins essentially glues them to teeth. The ADA says on its website that raisins produce plaque acids that are harmful to your teeth long after you are done eating them.

How do you like them now?

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