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For the past 20 years, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has compiled and released what they call the “Dirty Dozen” – an annual list of the 12 fruits and vegetables believed to have the highest level of pesticide residue compared to other produce. This year, strawberries top the list and are followed by common fruits and vegetables such as apples, peaches, celery, grapes, cherries, spinach, and tomatoes. This list can be a helpful tool when thinking about what produce you buy regularly, as well as how you prepare and wash these fruits and vegetables before eating and cooking. If you’re trying to introduce more organic items into your or your family’s diet (and budget!), then the produce types that make up this list may be the best place to start.

Tests done by both the USDA Pesticide Testing Program and the Food and Drug Administration were used to rank the produce; the EWG then looked at 6 different measures:

  • Percent of samples tested that had detectable pesticides
  • Percent of samples that had two or more pesticides
  • Average number of pesticides found on a sample
  • Average amount (in parts per million) of all pesticides found
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

According to the EWG, the fruits and vegetables that made the Dirty Dozen list “…tested positive for a number of different pesticide residues and showed higher concentrations of pesticides than other produce.” All produce are tested as they are typically eaten, so first they are washed and then peeled if applicable (in the case of a banana, for instance).

The Clean Fifteen

To complement the the Dirty Dozen, the EWG also releases the “Clean Fifteen.” The two lists make up what the EWG calls their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceWhile the Dirty Dozen contains produce that tends to have higher levels of pesticide residue, the Clean Fifteen focuses on fruits and vegetables that are safer to consume. Because they absorb a more minimal amount of crop chemicals,  it’s less important to purchase organic when it comes to these 15 types of produce. Avocados top this list and are followed by produce such as sweet corn, onions, asparagus, mango and grapefruit.

What does all this mean for us?

These lists shouldn’t scare us away from eating fruits and vegetables; in fact, we should be eating more! A diet rich in fruits and vegetables leads to a healthy and longer life than a diet without these foods – it is far better to eat produce on this list than sugary, less-healthy snacks or processed foods. The USDA has found that Americans have been eating roughly the same amount of fruits and vegetables for some years, and this plateaued behavior is worrisome for nutrition and health experts. Even the EWG states, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

So the takeaway message here is to always try to increase your fruit and veggie consumption – just be sure to wash produce thoroughly before eating (especially when non-organic). And it’s important to not only be mindful of the produce we’re bringing into our kitchen, but also the ingredients found outside of our food – in their packaging, for example – and beyond to common items in our home. To that end, the EWG has also published a “Dirty Dozen: Cancer Prevention Edition,” which highlights the 12 worst ingredients known to be carcinogens that are often found in everyday items such as food packaging, cosmetics, and furniture. These ingredients to stay away from are:

1. Bisphenol A (BPA): a chemical used in the plastic lining of food and beverage containers

2. Atrazine: a widely used herbicide often found in drinking water

3. Organophosphate Pesticides

4. Dibutyl Phthalate (DBP): found in soft plastics such as shower liners and raincoats

5. Lead

6. Mercury

7. PFCs: used in grease and stain-repellant coatings on carpet and furniture

8. Phthalates: often added to perfumes or included within products under the ambiguous term ‘fragrance

9. Diethlyhexyl Phthalate (DEHP)

10. PBDEs: a fire retardant that was used to treat furniture, mattresses, and pillows manufactured before 2005

11. Triclosan: used in many antibacterial soap products

12. Nonylphenol: found in items such as laundry detergents, personal care products, and paints


Additional Source: Mind Body Green’s ‘The 12 Worst Cancer-Causing Ingredients in Everyday Products’