Posted on Jun 11, 2020, 3 p.m.
Recently a video has gone viral showing white bugs in strawberries that were submerged in a saltwater bath, and this has many people concerned. But should you be, the short answer is no, not really, even though that video may have you feeling a bit squeamish.
The insects in this video are called the spotted wing drosophila, and according to Don Lewis, PhD, who is also a professor and extension entomologist at the Iowa State University department of entomology in Ames. “It’s a very tiny fruit fly that has only been in the continental United States since 2008.”
Dr. Lewis explains that this is an invasive insect, and for thin skinned fruits the fly pokes holes into the fruit to lay eggs in which they become larvae and grow. The saltwater treatment is used by commercial fruit growers for quality control to test if these pests have been infesting their crops. “For the producer, mashing up strawberries or raspberries with either a sugar or salt solution and checking for larvae is a monitoring technique used to see if their pest control is working,” says Dr. Lewis.
Farmers don’t want these insects in their crops because they reduce the shelf life and storability of the crops, not because they are bad for you. “They don’t want the fruits to break down before they get to the consumer, and making sure they’re insect-free is the way they do that,” he says.
To put this into a bit more perspective, according to Dr. Lewis if you slice a berry you will not see little white larvae as refrigeration halts their growth for starters, plus: “The larvae will be one-fiftieth of an inch — not even visible to the naked eye. However, if you let the fruit sit out at room temperature and allow the insects to grow for one to two weeks, they will reach three-sixteenths of an inch and be fairly visible,” says Lewis. But if you leave the fruit sitting out for that length of time the berries will be inedible anyway.
Some suggest that if these bugs are present you may even be getting a nutritional perk, such a Jennie Schmidt who is a registered dietitian and farmer who says: “These larvae are so microscopic that even if you ate a quart of strawberries, you’re still consuming a minuscule amount of extra protein.”
When it comes down to it, bugs in your food is basically what you sign up for when you consume fruits and vegetables, and it has always been this way since the very first bite. Yes the idea of it may gross you out but there is a very real possibility that many of the things that you consume each and every day may have some bugs or bug parts within them, and to add to that the FDA allows it. Dr. Lewis points out that the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook defines this as being “levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”
Here’s some fun facts; some of your foods may contain bugs, bug parts or even mouse hairs, and “Canned tomatoes can average up to 10 fly eggs and be acceptable. A cup of frozen spinach can contain up to 50 bug pieces. Fruit fly larvae in strawberries is another in a long list of things that can happen because food is grown in the real world,” says Lewis.
According to Schmidt who grows grapes the grape berry moth is a common pest for vineyards, and these pests may be present when they are pressed, meaning that wines, jams, jelly, whatever the pressed grapes are going to be used for may have some bug juice in it.
“You can go a lot of places [with this issue] that gross people out, but it’s just nature. It’s something we deal with no matter if it’s a small, large, organic, or nonorganic farm,” says Schmidt, who goes on to add that in order to rid any produce of all bugs farmers would have to constantly spray them with pesticides which is extremely unappealing for farmers and consumers alike.
While synthetic pesticides may be more effective against this insect, those used in organic farms may need to the applied more often and may not work as well to go along with being generally more expensive which may drive prices up, according to Lewis, who adds that the decision to consume organic produce or conventional grown produce is up to the individual, but there are trade offs to each type.
It is not recommended to soak produce in salt water, as it may make them taste pretty bad, rather examine the fruit and cut away any exterior damage or deterioration before eating it. Always clean produce before eating it to wash away any pesticide residues, dirt, or germs that may be present. The USDA suggests that just rinsing under running water is fine for most produce, and if it has a firm surface such as a potato or apple you can consider scrubbing with a brush.
“To me, people don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, period,” says Schmidt. “As gross as it might be to someone,” Schmidt adds, “if you pull a carrot out of the soil and eat it, it will have microscopic insects. Healthy soil has an abundance of bacterial life and fungi. It doesn’t make it bad for you.”
According to the CDC only 1 in 10 American adults consumes the recommended 1½ to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups per day of vegetables, and these poor eating habits can make people more prone to chronic diseases, which make up 7 of the 10 leading causes of death in America.
Those who follow a more plant based diet have been shown to have a lower risk of all chronic disease according to a recent study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, finding that these people also have a 16% lower risk of developing heart disease.
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