Eating Fruits and Vegetables with High Pesticide Residues Linked To Poor Semen Quality

According to a new study by Harvard School of Public Health.

We all should all be eating more fruits and vegetables, but a new study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) suggests that we should also be checking to see where our produce comes from.

Researchers found that men who ate fruits and vegetables with “higher levels of pesticide residues” including strawberries, spinach, and peppers, had lower sperm count and a lower percentage of normal sperm than those who ate produce with lower pesticide residue levels.

The study, which was published Monday in the journal Human Reproduction, is the first ever study to look at the correlation between ingesting pesticide residues from fruits and vegetables and semen quality, according to HSPH. Previous studies have shown a link between pesticides and lower semen quality, but those studies were about occupational and environmental exposure, not food intake.

“To our knowledge, this is the first report to link consumption of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables, a primary exposure route for most people, to an adverse reproductive health outcome in humans,” said the study’s senior author, assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology, Jorge Chavarro, in a statement.

According to the study:

The researchers used data from 155 men enrolled in the Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) study, an ongoing National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences-funded study at a fertility center in Boston. Data included 338 semen samples provided during 2007–2012 and validated survey information about participants’ diets. The researchers classified fruits and vegetables according to whether they contained high amounts of pesticide residues (such as peppers, spinach, strawberries, apples, and pears) or low-to-moderate amounts (such as peas, beans, grapefruit, and onions), based on data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program. They then adjusted for factors such as smoking and body mass index—both known to affect sperm quality—and looked for connections between the men’s intake of produce with pesticide residue and the quality of their sperm.

The results showed that men who ate greater amounts of fruits and vegetables with higher levels of pesticide residue—more than 1.5 servings per day—had 49% lower sperm count and 32% lower percentage of normal sperm than men who ate the least amounts (less than 0.5 serving per day). They also had a lower sperm count, lower ejaculate volume, and lower percentage of normal sperm. The men who ate the most fruits and vegetables with low-to-moderate levels of pesticide residue had a higher percentage of normal sperm compared with those who ate less fruits and vegetables with low-to-moderate levels.

“These findings should not discourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables in general,” Chavarro said in a statement. “In fact, we found that consuming more fruits and vegetables with low pesticide residues was beneficial. This suggests that implementing strategies specifically targeted at avoiding pesticide residues, such as consuming organically-grown produce or avoiding produce known to have large amounts of residues, may be the way to go.”

Although organic produce can be pricey, this new study suggests that we should be buying it anyway, especially when it comes to strawberries, spinach, apples, pears, and peppers.


Melissa Malamut
Melissa Malamut Melissa Malamut, Senior Editor, Health, at Boston Magazine mmalamut@bostonmagazine.com