A newly published study out of Harvard University suggests that consuming fruits and vegetables containing pesticide residues can lead to a reduction in semen quality.
Researchers found that men who ate the most fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residue levels had, on average, a 49% lower sperm count and 32% fewer normally formed sperm than men who ate less produce tainted with pesticides.
The team has made clear, however, that not all fruits and vegetables pose a risk to male fertility. “These findings should not discourage the consumption of fruit and vegetables in general,” Jorge Chavarro, an assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said in a press release. “In fact, we found that total intake of fruit and vegetables was completely unrelated to semen quality. 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.”
Chavarro and his colleagues analyzed 338 semen samples collected from 155 men. The men had all attended a fertility center as part of the ongoing Environment and Reproductive Health Study, were between the age of 18 and 55, had not had a vasectomy, and were not planning to use their sperm for infertility treatments.
The team used a diet questionnaire to ask the men how often they consumed certain fruits and vegetables. Those fruits and vegetables were then categorized as posing a high, moderate or low pesticide risk based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program. Produce with low levels of residues included grapefruit, beans, peas and onions, for example, while those with high levels included spinach, strawberries, apples, pears and peppers. Washing and preparation were taken into account.
Men with the highest intake of high-risk produce had an average sperm count of 86 million per ejaculate; those eating the least averaged 171 million sperm per ejaculate.
Past studies have demonstrated a link between occupational exposure to pesticides and lower semen quality, but this is the first study to examine the effects of diet-related pesticide exposure in this context.
Several groups have responded to the publication of the study, saying it puts some much-needed attention on male fertility problems. And the study’s authors have pointed out that sperm quality has been correlated with more than just infertility, “also predicting both morbidity and mortality.”
The full study was published March 30 in the journal Human Reproduction.