Every year the Environmental Working Group releases their Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce, commonly known as the "Dirty Dozen" list and the “Clean Fifteen” list. The Guide is an annual rating of 48 commonly purchased fruits and vegetables with the most and least amount of pesticide residue, based on an analysis of 32,000 samples tested by the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For more than a decade, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has been stepping in to provide information to millions of shoppers that the EPA has failed to offer, despite a 1996 "Consumer Right to Know" law that requires it.
This year, the USDA tests found a total of 230 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of produce samples analyzed – that’s 70% of the conventionally grown produce samples contaminated with pesticide residue. There are also stark differences among various types of produce. Pesticides pose health risks, but luckily for us the EWG’s research and testing makes it easy for consumers to make an educated decision while shopping for produce.
The 2018 Dirty Dozen
These items ranked highest in pesticide residue data, even after the fruit is carefully washed or peeled. It’s recommended to purchase organically grown versions of these fruits and vegetables to help you skip the toxic chemicals.
12. Sweet Bell Peppers
Interesting Findings - More than 98 percent of samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide. A single sample of strawberries showed 20 different pesticides. Spinach samples had, on average, 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop.
The 2018 Clean Fifteen
These items ranked lowest in pesticide residue data when grown conventionally.
2. Sweet Corn**
6. Sweet Peas (frozen)
11. Honeydew Melon
**The majority of sweet corn and papaya sold in the United States are produced from genetically modified seeds (GMO). Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce.
Interesting Findings - Avocados and sweet corn** were the cleanest, with only 1% of samples showing any detectable pesticides. No single fruit on the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four pesticides. More than 80% of pineapples, papayas**, asparagus, onions and cabbages had no pesticide residues. Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5% of Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.
By releasing this list every year, the EWG empowers consumers who may otherwise find the cost of purchasing all organic produce cost-prohibitive. By referencing both guides, shoppers are able to select between conventionally grown and organically grown produce with real data backing up their choice.
Why Should I Avoid Pesticides?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, "The health effects of pesticides depend on the type of pesticide. Some such as organophosphates and carbamates, affect the nervous system. Others may irritate the skin or eyes. Some pesticides may be carcinogens. Others may affect the hormone or endocrine system in the body." A study in JAMA Internal Medicine found a surprising association between consuming high-pesticide-residue foods and fertility problems.
Pesticides and Children – An Even Greater Health Risk
- The National Academy of Sciences reports that children are more susceptible to chemicals than adults and estimates 50% of lifetime pesticide exposure occurs in the first 5 years of life.
- The EPA reports children take in more pesticides relative to body weight than adults and have developing organ systems more vulnerable and less able to detoxify toxins.
- A 2000 study published by the EWG found pesticides such as the weedkiller 2,4-D pass from mother to child through umbilical cord blood and breast milk.
- Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley found exposure to pesticides while in the womb may increase the odds a child will have ADHD.
- Children's exposure to organophosphates can cause subtle but lasting damage to their brains and nervous system.
Why is Organic More Expensive?
Organically grown produce more closely reflects the true price of farming. Government subsidies tend to go towards large-scale, chemically intensive agriculture, lowering the true price of these conventionally grown products. The very practice of growing organic, such as restricted chemical use, better standards of care for animals, and more manual labor, is costlier to the farmer. In order to have the USDA-certified Organic seal on their product, organic farmers must pay for certification costs, which are expensive.
Shopping at your local farmers market can be a good way to save money on organically grown produce, particularly for those items that appear on the Dirty Dozen list. Often, your small, local farmer may employ organic growing practices, even if he/ she has not paid for the organic certification. In addition, you are not paying to have these items shipped from 1/2 way around the globe. These savings are passed on to you, the consumer. Local farmers are happy to talk to you about their growing practices and will often invite you to their farm should you want to verify for yourself.
Shop smart, shop local, and don't leave home without The Guide! They have a really convenient app you can download onto your phone for a quick reference while grocery shopping.
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods
Y-H Chiu et al., Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake from Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assistance Reproductive Technology. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2018. DOI: 10.1001/amainternmed.2017.5038. Available at jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2659557