A new study investigates whether eating fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticide might be connected in some way to infertility. For 155 men experiencing fertility problems, those eating fruits and vegetables highest in pesticides had a 49 percent lower sperm count and a 32 percent smaller percentage of normally shaped sperm. However, men eating the most low pesticide fruits and veggies had the highest percentage of quality sperm.

Since the 1970s, it’s been known that men who work with pesticides have lower semen quality. What scientists have not yet looked into (until now) is whether pesticide exposure through food harms men’s sperm as well. Sadly, 30 percent of all couples who find it difficult to become pregnant discover it is male infertility and not female sterility that is the root cause.

For the current study, then, a team of researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health enlisted the help of 155 men, between the ages of 18 and 55, who sought fertility treatment with their partners at Mass General Hospital in Boston.

First, each man filled out a questionnaire asking how often and how much he consumed different fruits and vegetables. To categorize each food as either high, moderate, or low in pesticide residue, the researchers used information provided by the annual U.S. Department of Agriculture Pesticide Data Program. Low pesticide fruits and veggies included peas, beans, grapefruit, and onions; high pesticide items included peppers, spinach, strawberries, apples, and pears. Once they gathered the questionnaires, the researchers ranked each man’s pesticide consumption (taking into account preparation techniques, such as washing and peeling), and divided the men into four quartiles of highest to lowest pesticide consumption. After including analyses of 338 semen samples, the researchers compared all the data.

No betting man will be surprised by the results: The men in the highest quartile — those eating the most pesticide-laden foods — had an average total sperm count of 86 million sperm per ejaculate compared to the lowest quartile men who averaged 171 million sperm per ejaculate. This is a 49 percent reduction. On average, normally formed sperm amounted to 7.5 percent for lowest quartile men compared to 5.1 percent for highest quartile men — again a decrease, this time of 32 percent.

While many a meat-and-potatoes-loving guy will likely jump to the conclusion that it’s just no good eating fruits and veggies, well, that would be just about all wrong. The study found men who consumed the most fruit and vegetables in the low pesticide range had the highest percentage of normally shaped sperm.

“When fertility is addressed, the male partner is often overlooked,” wrote the authors of an editorial accompanying the study. “Male fertility studies provide an opportunity not only to better understand the causes of an important public health problem, but more broadly to illustrate effects of the modern environment on human health.”

Source: Chiu YH, Afeiche MC, Gaskins AJ, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and their pesticide residues in relation to semen quality among men from a fertility clinic. Human Reproduction. 2015.