When it comes to feeding my family and taking care of our health, I do my best to buy organic produce.
But the reality is that it's not always in the budget.
To help me make the most of my shopping dollars, I rely on the annual “Dirty Dozen” list from the Environmental Working Group.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization whose goal is “to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment”.
As part of their efforts, EWG issues an annual Shopper's Guide to Pesticides, in which they rank 48 popular fruits and vegetables by their pesticide loads.
Why organic farming matters
By definition, organic crops are not treated with synthetic pesticides … and they offer other benefits.
A recent review of 343 scientific papers revealed that organically grown crops produce more antioxidants, have fewer pesticide residues (caused by pesticide “drift” from nearby conventional farms), and contain less toxic cadmium (see Organic Crops Offer More Antioxidants
The first generation of synthetic pesticides, called organophosphates, was created in the 1930's.
They were quickly adopted as chemical warfare weapons by Britain and Germany, but never used.
Organophosphate pesticides remain in common use on conventional farms, to kill insects, plants, and fungi that attack food crops.
But organophosphates inactivate an enzyme that's essential to nerve function in insects, mammals, and many other animals.
So, like almost all synthetic pesticides, organophosphates can kill or sicken humans and animals, and pose special risks to children, farm families, and farm workers.
Michelle Lee is a writer and avid home chef, with 20 years of experience focusing on healthy lifestyle, diet and the home kitchen.
When not playing around with words, she loves to cook, spend time with her two children, play cribbage with her husband, and tackle The New York Times crossword puzzle
Although organic farms use some approved natural pest controls, they are mostly physical in nature, and clearly safe.
How the Dirty Dozen list is created
The Environmental Working Group reviews pesticide-residue data on the most 48 commonly consumed fruits and vegetables.
Their rankings are based on lab tests done mostly by the USDA … which tests more than 34,000 samples of common food crops, looking for all commonly used pesticides.
EWG then assigns each food a composite score that combines the following factors:
- Total number of pesticides found
- Average amount of all pesticides found
- Average number of pesticides on a sample
- Percent of samples with two or more pesticides
- Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
- Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
Their goal in publishing the Dirty Dozen is not to discourage you from eating these fruits and vegetables.
Instead, the idea is to help us all make informed shopping decisions and – if you need to be selective for any reason – choose the produce it's most important to buy organically grown.
Meet the Dirty Dozen
Without further ado, meet the 2015 Dirty Dozen, ranked from highest (dirtiest) composite score to lowest (relatively cleanest):
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Imported Snap Peas
The EWG also gleaned these disturbing facts from the official U.S. data:
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce
- A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
- 99% of apple samples, 98% of peaches and 97% of nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide.
- Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries each showed 13 different pesticides.
What's safest to eat non-organic? The Clean Fifteen
In addition to ranking the dirtiest dozen items, the EWG also compiles a list, called the Clean Fifteen, of the items with the lowest pesticide composite score.
When it comes to your shopping budget, the Clean Fifteen is a safer place to start if you can't buy everything organic:
- Sweet Corn
- Frozen Sweet Peas
- Sweet Potatoes
Here are a few key points EWG makes about the Clean Fifteen list:
- Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables.
- A large majority of pineapples, kiwi, papayas, mango and cantaloupe had no residues.
- No fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
- Avocados were the cleanest: only 1 percent of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
Does washing and peeling help?
According to EWG, washing and peeling doesn't change a food's ranking.
This is because the USDA lab tests produce as it is "typically eaten": washed and, when applicable, peeled.
And since some plants absorb pesticides, washing would only affect surface residues, which should already have been relatively low, due to the USDA's pre-test peeling/washing routine.
The safest course is to use the EWG Dirty Dozen list to avoid conventionally grown versions of the “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables.
- e-CFR Title 7: Agriculture. Subpart G—Administrative; The National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances §205.105; Allowed and prohibited substances, methods, and ingredients in organic production and handling.
- EWG's 2015 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. Accessed at http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty_dozen_list.php
- Natural Resources Defense Council. Trouble on the Farm: Growing Up with Pesticides in Agricultural Communities. Accessed at http://www.nrdc.org/health/kids/farm/chap1.asp