Hear Me Out: a Few Bugs in Your Organic Veggies Won’t Kill You

Photo: Getty Images / Maskot / W+G Creative
One morning two weeks ago, a rare thing happened: I woke up motivated (and with enough time) to make my own breakfast before heading out the door. But something nightmarish happened while I was making my celery juice. As I broke off a few stalks to throw in the blender, a dead bug popped out from the folds of my organic celery.

Context: Bugs and I don’t get along. I’m a 22-year-old who’s unashamed to wake up her dad at 3 a.m. to kill a creepy crawler (shout out to my roommates for assuming his role in my new apartment).

Consider my bliss ruined. I threw out the offensive, bug-hiding celery, vowed to never again buy organic, and headed to Juice Generation for my green fix.

Later, when I’d had time to recover from the Great Bug in Celery Incident of 2019, I wondered if I’d overreacted about the whole thing. Maybe finding bugs in my celery wasn’t the work of the devil but a part of nature that any organic shopper should be prepared for.

“There’s no reason to get freaked out about bugs whether they’re alive or dead on your produce,” says Brian Nault, PhD, a professor of entomology at Cornell University. “They’re harmless especially when they’re dead.” He says washing off pests will leave behind perfectly safe food, but even if you *gag* accidentally eat one, he says you’re in the clear.

So yes, I def overreacted. Thankfully Sonya Angelone, RDN, reassured me that my response is normal. “Consumers really want organic produce. They love the idea; they don’t want pesticides in their food,” says Angelone. “But they don’t really tolerate imperfections or bugs.” (For her part, Angelone says she has found everything from ladybugs to slugs in her produce, especially when she buys from a farmers market.)

You can always go for produce that’s bagged and pre-washed or go for conventionally grown (read: non-organic) fruits and vegetables if bugs are a total deal breaker for you . But even that isn’t a guarantee. Nault says that it’s possible to find insects in pretty much all produce, whether it’s organic or not. However, you’re more likely to find these little visitors in organic produce than conventionally grown varieties because organic farming does not use chemical pesticides to ward off bugs. Meaning that bug-free celery may have come with a decent dose of the harsh stuff to make that happen.

So the choice for a consumer comes down to being more concerned about bugs or pesticides. While pesticides have been linked to cancer, brain and fetal damage, the World Health Organization explains that safe intake levels are established so the levels of pesticide residue in foods are low enough that they’re safe enough for us humans.

If you’d prefer to shop organic, Angelone says it’s key to check your fruit and veggies before you leave the store. “I’ve gotten broccoli that was infested with aphids,” she recalls. “Had I just looked at the store I would have seen that they were there, and I would have gotten a different head and not had to deal with it.”

Obviously, you can’t see everything, Angelone says—especially if you buy something with good hiding places like celery or lettuce, or use a home-delivery service that pre-selects and packages the produce for you. In that case, she recommends placing your veggies in a cold water bath, moving them around and adding a little salt or white vinegar to help loosen debris and kill pests (no soap or special sprays needed). She says any dirt will settle while unwanted bugs will float to the top. Briefly rinse the food under running water after removing it from the water bath.

But if both bugs and pesticides still freak you out, you don’t necessarily have to eat all organic (Angelone notes that can get expensive really fast.) Instead, she recommends consulting the Environmental Working Group’s annual “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists. The group analyzes the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program yearly report and figures out which conventionally grown produce has the most and least pesticide residue. The 2018 “Clean 15” list includes faves like cauliflower, asparagus, and avocados—foods you can likely buy conventional to avoid bugs without worrying about excessive pesticide exposure.

Now that I’m armed and ready to face celery again, I can get back on my juice journey. I’ll be testing Angelone’s water bath method but TBH, if a beetle floats to the top...I don’t think I’ll be able to handle it. If anyone knows a good therapist to help me get over my insect phobia, let me know, please and thank you.

If the idea of juicing celery grossed you out as much as the bug that was in it try roasting the trending veg instead. And don’t let a fear of insects keep you from becoming the thriving indoor plant lady of your dreams—there’s a way prevent them.

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