If you want to begin incorporating more organic foods into your diet, but can’t afford to buy everything organic, consulting the “EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM” is a good place to start. Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles a list of the top 12 most pesticide-ridden produce, which they call “The Dirty Dozen,” as well as a list of the top 15 fruits and vegetables with the least amount of pesticides, known as the “Clean 15.”
The annual EWG guide ranks the pesticide contamination of 47 of the most popular fruits and vegetables. The ranking of food and pesticides is based on the results from tests run by the USDA on more than 40,900 samples. It’s interesting to note that when the USDA tests for pesticide residue in food, they first prepare the food as consumers would typically do prior to eating. In this case, produce is washed thoroughly and peeled when applicable. So any pesticide residue found after these preparations is what you would typically be consuming when you eat those fruits and vegetables at home.
The Dirty Dozen for 2019
These are the 12 most pesticide-laden fruits and vegetables. If you want to reduce your exposure to pesticides, this is the best place to start.
The tests on the Dirty Dozen revealed some shocking findings:
- Almost all samples––99%––of strawberries had detectable residues of at least one pesticide. About 30% had 10 or more pesticides, and the worst had residues of 23 different pesticides and breakdown products.
- An average of 7.1 pesticides were found on every conventionally grown spinach sample, with a maximum of 19. Permethrin, a neurotoxic insecticide banned in the EU, was found on 76% of the samples.
- On average, 5.6 different pesticides were found on the typical kale sample, with multiple samples showing 18 different pesticide residues.
- More than 90% of the samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
Although hot peppers were not included in the Dirty Dozen because they didn’t meet the EWG’s traditional ranking criteria, they were given a special designation under the label “Dirty Dozen PlusTM.” The report expressed serious concerns about three of the pesticides often used on hot peppers because they are highly toxic to the human nervous system. Those pesticides––acephate, chlorpyrifos and oxamyl––are banned on some crops, but are still allowed on hot peppers. Because of this, the EWG recommends that people who frequently eat hot peppers buy organic.
The Clean 15 for 2019
The fewest pesticides were detected in these fruits and vegetables.
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
Some interesting key findings from tests on the Clean 15:
- Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest, with less than 1% showing any detectable pesticides.
- More than 70% of the Clean 15 fruit and vegetable samples had no pesticide residues at all.
- Multiple pesticide residues were extremely rare on the Clean 15, with only 6% of the samples having two or more pesticides.
Subscribe to the World's Most Popular Newsletter (it's free!)
If your favorite fruit or vegetable is not on either list, you can check out the EWG’s full list to see where all 47 produce items rank.
A Word About GMOs
It’s important to note that the EWG guide only evaluates pesticide residue in food. It doesn’t evaluate things like whether or not a produce item comes from genetically engineered seeds. It does, however, make this statement about GMOs in its report:
Most processed foods typically contain one or more ingredients derived from genetically engineered crops, such as corn syrup and corn oil made from predominantly GMO starchy field corn. Yet GMO foods are not often found in the fresh produce section of American supermarkets. According to the USDA, a small percentage of zucchini, yellow squash and sweet corn is genetically modified. Most Hawaiian papaya is GMO. Genetically engineered apples and potatoes are also starting to enter the U.S. market.
For more information about GMOs in food, check out “EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Avoiding GMO Food.”
Does Eating Organic Foods Make a Difference?
Studies are showing that eating organic can make a significant difference to your overall health.
Eating Organic Significantly Reduces Pesticide Exposure – A 2019 study, published in the journal Environmental Research, tested the urine of a diverse group of American families who were eating a conventional diet. They found potential exposure to more than 40 different pesticides. The families then switched to an all-organic diet. After just a week of eating organic, there was an average of 60% reduction in the levels of pesticides found in their urine.
Increased Organic Food Consumption Associated with Reduced Risk of Cancer – A study, published in the December 2018 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, investigated the association between organic food consumption and the risk of cancer in 68,946 French adults. They found that those who had the highest frequency of organic food consumption had 25% fewer incidences of cancer than those who did not eat organic.
There’s little doubt that eating organic offers important health benefits, but switching to an all-organic diet can be difficult. Depending on where you live, finding a wide variety of organic foods can be challenging. Many grocery stores only have a small section of their produce departments set aside for organic fruits and vegetables. And of course, buying organic foods is always more expensive, but it is possible to eat healthy on a limited budget. In the end, when you look at the cost to your health and possible increased medical bills down the road, even if it costs a little more, it may be small price to pay.
If you would like to start eating healthier and including more organic foods in your diet, the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists are the right place to start when choosing the best foods to eat organic. Put a copy of the lists in your wallet so you’ll have them available when you’re shopping. If you can only afford to add two or three organic foods at first, start with the worst of the worst––strawberries, spinach and kale. Then gradually add more organic produce as you’re able. You might be surprised to find that often organic produce tastes better, too!
Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) in 1997 and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, then worked for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network before coming to ProHealth. To learn more about Karen, see “Meet Karen Lee Richards.”