The Dirty Dozen might not be exactly what you think it is.
It’s a shoppers’ guide to pesticides in produce, published each spring by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG). It lists the 12 fruits and veggies EWG experts say contain the highest levels of pesticides — i.e., the ones you should try to buy organic.
The list has been published every year since 2004 and uses data from the United States Department of Agriculture. Since the USDA doesn’t compile data every year, EWG pulls results from the most recent testing period.
But before you toss everything in your fridge…
The guide isn’t meant to scare you away from conventionally farmed fruits and veggies. As any nutritionist would tell you, the health benefits of including more plant-based foods on your plate, even those on the list, generally outweigh the risks. As it is, nearly 90% of us don’t eat enough fruits and veggies. And though there’s more pesticide residue on conventionally grown foods, it’s still, reportedly, below safety limits.
So don’t swap out your dark leafy greens like spinach and kale (#2 and #3 on the list) for a bag of Cheese Doodles — especially now, when seasonal fresh produce is abundant.
Even EWG toxicologist Thomas Galligan, PhD, would agree: “Whether organic or conventionally grown, fruits and vegetables are critical components of a healthy diet,” he said. Though EWG does recommend choosing organic, especially the top 12, whenever possible.
So without further ado…
- Kale | Collard and Mustard Greens
- Bell and Hot Peppers
In case you’re wondering, strawberries topped the list for the 6th year in a row. Many of the others appear regularly in the ranking, including spring and summer favorites like cherries, peaches, and nectarines.
The newest additions were the bell and hot peppers, which made this year’s Dirty Dozen after being tested for the first time in a decade. Primarily, the concern has to do with chlorpyrifos, a pesticide originally created as an alternative to DDT, that the EWG says can impact children's cognitive development, and has been banned overseas.
The benefits of buying organic
Studies on pesticides, conducted mostly in occupational settings—on farmworkers, for example—have found that low-dose exposure was linked to health issues ranging from respiratory problems and memory disorders to skin conditions, depression, and miscarriage.
Whether you’re feeding just yourself or a growing family, you’ll probably want to keep pesticides out of your food as much as possible. “By nature pesticides are toxic, and doing what you can to reduce exposures is a good idea to protect your family's health,” Jane Houlihan, national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, told CNN. The list “is a really great resource.”
Some studies have shown that organic produce contains higher levels of antioxidants than conventionally grown produce. Antioxidants may protect your cells against free radicals, which are thought to play a role in chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease and cancer. Organic farming and harvesting methods are also considered more environmentally responsible/sustainable, with soil integrity being key.
So, think of The Dirty Dozen list as inspiration to shop smarter.
And introducing … The Clean Fifteen
Fresh organic produce can cost more than conventional, and may be harder to find at some stores, and in some areas. If you’re trying to stick to a food budget, consider the EWG’s Clean Fifteen. Using data from the same tests, the group also creates an annual counterpart list highlighting produce that contains virtually no traces of pesticides, even when conventionally grown.
However you fill your shopping cart, consider these three tips from the experts:
Eat a wide variety of fruits and veggies
It's important, not only to make sure you're getting a variety of nutrients, but also so you're not concentrating any particular pesticide in your family's diet.
Rinse, don’t wash, your produce before eating
Rinsing with water is the best way to remove surface pesticide residues and dirt from your produce. The FDA recommends against washing fruits and vegetables with soaps or detergents. Because produce is porous, cleaning or household products are easily absorbed (even if you rinse well) and can make you sick.
Buy local and in season
Farm-to-table, which you probably know is food that’s locally sourced and purchased directly from a farmer or producer, can cut down on pesticide use. Plus, prices tend to drop when fruits and veggies are in season and plentiful, and items on the DD list should be less expensive. Fill up your card or farmer’s market basket, and then prep and freeze for future use.
Conventional produce will always beat a bag of chips
Filling your plate with fresh fruits and veggies, whether conventional or organically grown, will always be a cornerstone of good nutrition. Especially now, as we’re heading into the hopefully final stretch of battling COVID.
Bottom line: Eating a non-organic, juicy red strawberry is still a better choice than eating a bowl of strawberry ice-cream. Though there can be room in your diet for both.