By Andrea Rodrigo BSc, MSc (embryologist).
Last Update: 04/22/2015

Infertility is a problem that affects around 15% of couples of reproductive age. Thirty per cent of sterility cases are due to a male factor, especially low sperm quality.

A recent study from Harvard University —published in the Human Reproduction magazine— has announced that semen quality, and more specifically sperm count, may be affected by the consumption of pesticide residues.

The study draws attention since it does not focus on a small group of men but can affect the general population since pesticide residues are present in food, that is to say, it is not about a reduced group of men who are exposed to higher levels of toxins due to professional reasons, but about a low-level exposure due solely to the consumption of fruits and vegetables. High levels of pesticide may deteriorate semen quality.

The different sections of this article have been assembled into the following table of contents.

Less quantity and worse morphology

The presence of pesticide residues in certain foods, more specifically fruits and vegetables, can worsen semen quality. According to the study, men who consume foods with high concentrations of pesticide residues present 49% fewer spermatozoids and less than 32% of them have a normal morphology when compared with men who eat fruits and vegetables with a lower level of pesticide residues.

In order to reach this conclusion, 338 semen samples from a total of 155 men between 18 and 55 years of age and who had visited an assisted reproduction centre from 2007 to 2012 have been analyzed.

During the study, men were divided into four groups according to the quantity of fruits and vegetables with high concentrations of pesticide residues they consumed:

  • Men who consumed 1.5 or more portions of fruits and vegetables with a high pesticide content.
  • Men who consumed less than 1.5 portions of fruits and vegetables with a high pesticide content.
  • Men who consumed 1.5 or more portions of fruits and vegetables with a low or moderate pesticide level.
  • Men who consumed less than 1.5 portions of fruits and vegetables with a low or moderate pesticide concentration.

The total sperm count of the group with a higher concentration of pesticide residues in fruits and vegetables was of 86 million sperm per ejaculate. In the group with a lower concentration of residues, this count was of 171 million sperm, representing a reduction of 49%.

Regarding morphology, the percentage of morphologically normal sperm in the group with low intake of fruits and vegetables with pesticide residues was of 17.5%, whereas in men who consumed foods with high levels of pesticide residues this percentage was of 5.1%.

Lastly, a lower volume of ejaculate (29%) in men who consumed more foods with pesticide residuals was also observed and noted.

Organic foods

Another study referred to by the authors of the study mentioned above, analyzed the effect of the consumption of organic foods on semen quality. Semen quality improves due to the consumption of these type of foods when compared to conventional products.

Furthermore, men who consume organic foods present a 43% higher sperm concentration, as well as a higher number of normal sperm. This study proves the conclusions reached by the authors of the Harvard article since the main difference between organic and non-organic products is, precisely, the use of pesticides.

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Authors and contributors

 Andrea Rodrigo
BSc, MSc
Embryologist
Bachelor's Degree in Biotechnology from the Polytechnic University of Valencia. Master's Degree in Biotechnology of Human Assisted Reproduction from the University of Valencia along with the Valencian Infertility Institute (IVI). Postgraduate course in Medical Genetics. More information
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