The Dirty Dozen. It just sounds, well, dirty. Somehow just not wholesome and good for you.
If we’re talking about the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” your instincts would be spot on.
We all know that fruits and vegetables are good for us. Our moms, teachers, trainers, nutritionists and just about everyone else has pounded that into our heads.
They’re full of fiber, full of vitamins and minerals and are natural, wholesome and clean.
Or are they? According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG,) a non-profit educational group, some fruits and vegetables are just not suitable for human consumption.
The EWG is concerned with educating us about the chemicals in our food chain, how agricultural practices effect food production and quality and natural resource protection. Each year since 1995, they’ve issued their “Dirty Dozen,” the list of conventionally grown fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue. Yum!
Now, these folks aren’t just guessing and they’re serious about their list. They use scientific methods which they claim “reflects the overall pesticide loads of common fruits and vegetables” (1). Using over 38,000 samples collected by the USDA, they narrow the list down until they’ve found the 12 worst fruits and vegetables for pesticide residue.
The EWG uses 6 principal criteria to get their results:
- The percentage of total samples which contain pesticide residue.
- The percentage of total samples containing two or more different pesticide residues.
- The average amount, in parts per million, of pesticide residues found on samples.
- How many pesticides are found on individual samples.
- The maximum number of pesticides found on an individual sample.
- The total number of pesticides found on an entire crop. (1)
The EWG has taken some heat from doctors, corporate farmers, the government and even some food scientists for “scaring people off” of eating healthy foods. This might be my favorite piece of nonsense around this issue. Food producing conglomerates swallow up millions of acres of farm land. They use immeasurable amounts of toxic pesticides to increase yield – and profits (not that I’m opposed to profits, I’m a big fan) – and we’re supposed to ignore the risks. Um, yeah, about that.
The USDA claims that our food supply is the safest in the world, with over 99% of all conventional produce falling below the recommended pesticide levels issued by the EPA. The EPA is the outfit who brought you GMO’s and the Flint water debacle, so you can take that into account when deciding whether to believe it.
Since science has linked moderate to long-term pesticide exposure, even at low levels, to a variety of chronic illnesses and conditions, is any exposure really worth it? In all likelihood, it’s impossible to absolutely prevent exposure to pesticide residue in the food we eat. But considering that those pesticides are linked to diseases like Parkinson’s, lupus, Alzheimer’s, cancers, reproductive disorders, birth defects and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease,) wouldn’t you like to be more informed about how to avoid as much of the stuff as you can? Of course you would! It’s a no-brainer!
The “Dirty Dozen” list refers only to conventionally grown produce. Organic produce doesn’t have this kind of problem because chemical pesticides are rarely, if ever used in the growing of organic produce. I recommend organic produce to my clients, especially for fruits and veggies with edible skin or rinds. Yes, it can be a little more expensive, but for commonly eaten produce, you might be surprised at how small the difference really is.
So what are the “dirty dozen” conventionally grown fruits and vegetables that you should avoid? Here they are, according to the EWG’s list.
- Strawberries – A perennial on this list, strawberries are loaded with pesticides. In fact the EWG found 10 or more pesticide residues on at least 33% of all samples taken.
- Spinach – Spinach is a staple for my clients, but not in its conventional form. 97% of all samples had pesticide residues. Among them was permethrin, a neurotoxic insecticide that has been proven highly toxic in animals. According to studies, children with permethrin in their urine were twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD. (2)
- Kale – 60% of all samples were contaminated with DCPA, also known as Dacthal. This pesticide has been marked as a carcinogen by the EPA since 1995 and has been connected to such issues as endocrine system disruption, neurological disorders and liver and thyroid tumors. (3)
PS…kale and spinach had 1.1 to 1.8 times more pesticide residue by weight than any other crops!
- Nectarines – These tasty fruits enjoyed a 94% residue detection rate, with one sample revealing over 15 different pesticide residues.
- Apples – Over 90% of samples tested positive. One of the residues was from diphenylamine, often sprayed on the apples after harvesting and connected to the possible formation of cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines. (4)
- Grapes – Grapes are repeat offenders, too, with over 96% of samples testing positive for pesticide residue.
- Peaches – Peach growers should be ashamed of themselves. Over 99% of peaches tested had four or more different residues on them.
- Cherries – Cherries had an average of 5 pesticide residues on each sample. Included in this was iprodione, a chemical banned in Europe and which has been connected to hormonal dysregulation and disruption. (5)
- Pears – Over 50% of tested pear samples had 5 or more pesticide residues on them.
- Tomatoes – Tomatoes averaged 4 pesticide residues per sample, with one sample carrying 15 different residues.
- Celery – Celery is mostly water and fiber. As such, it is prized by dieters, nutritionists and those seeking low calorie and low carb snack choices. It also has a problem with pesticide residues, with over 95% of samples testing positive and some samples showing 13 different residues.
- Potatoes – Like Chlorpropham? Then you’ll love potatoes! They’re loaded with this herbicide that has been linked to adverse blood cell changes and skin and eye irritation.
While the EWG also issues a “Clean Fifteen” list, it’s a relative affair. While many of the foods on the list showed no pesticide residue, that doesn’t mean they were grown organically or pesticide-free. For some of these foods, the cleaning and processing that takes place after harvesting helps reduce or eliminate the pesticide residue.
That being said, here are the “Clean Fifteen.”
- Sweet corn
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
You’ll note that every single fruit and vegetable on the “Dirty Dozen” list is one in which you eat the skin or rind. Not so with the “Clean Fifteen.” Avocados, pineapples, papayas, kiwis, cantaloupes and honeydew melons. Even with onions, most of us peel the outer skin layers. Why does this matter? Most pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are applied by spraying or dusting. So the outer layer of the produce is where most of it would get filtered or wind up as residue. If you don’t eat the skin, the fruit or vegetable is likely safer as it relates to pesticide and other chemical residue.
Why should you care about pesticide residue on your produce? The answer is simple and complex all at once. The simple answer is that pesticides, herbicides and fungicides are chemical complexes that are engineered to kill insects, fungus and other things that interfere with crop health and production.
Many of these products are neurotoxins. Some are on the list of known carcinogens kept by the EPA. Still others have had insufficient research done to fully understand the interactions of these chemicals in the human body. Some studies have been done on these products, but most are designed around short-term, acute, high dose exposure. Very few studies are available or even underway to determine the effects of low level, long-term exposure.
What do we know? Well, the folks at Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health Environment and Reproductive Health found a shocking correlation between the consumption of foods with high levels of pesticide residue and reproductive and fertility issues. (6)
Other studies have linked exposure to neurological damage, endocrine system disruption and dysregulation, respiratory issues and increased risk of a variety of cancers. (7)
We also know that women who live in the vicinity of farms where the pesticides organophosphate, carbamate or pyrethroid were sprayed exhibited a greater tendency to give birth to children who would be diagnosed with autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASD.) (8)
Prenatal exposure to high levels of pesticides can lead to serious delays in cognitive development in children. It can also delay other mental process development, including motor speed, motor coordination, visuospatial performance and visual memory. (9)
Children who exhibited high urinary levels of the metabolites for certain organophosphate pesticides were at significantly higher risk of developing ADHD than other children. (10)
I think we’ve established that pesticides on your food aren’t good for you. But can they be avoided? The answer is yes, mostly.
One of the simplest ways to avoid the risk is by only purchasing organic produce. Organic fruit and vegetable growers use pesticides, too. However, the pesticides they use are organic in nature. The idea of organic farming is to use the land and nature itself to increase yield, avoid insects and prevent disease in crops. Organic farmers use better crop hygiene, natural plant protection and crop rotation to avoid the use of chemical pesticides.
In fact, the list of approved organic pesticides, herbicides and fungicides contains only 75 different compounds. This compares to the over 900 chemical compounds used by conventional crop growers.
Of course, not every type of fruit and vegetable is available in organic form everywhere and all the time. So what to do? Try these ways to minimize exposure risk:
- Peel or skin your produce – Since most of the residue is in and on the peel or skin, removing it will help reduce your exposure.
- Wash your fruits and veggies – This should be a no-brainer, but I guess it needs to be repeated. Rinse them in cold water. You can use a soft brush with a natural or organic produce wash or even an organic or chemical-free dish soap to help reduce the pesticide residue.
- Use Baking Soda – A 1% baking soda solution has been shown to be more effective at pesticide removal than water alone.
- Wash them in Ozonated water – Yes, water with ozone in it. It’s been shown in several studies to reduce the pesticide residue.
- Boil the suckers – Boiling can reduce pesticide residue significantly. It may not make for the best tasting produce, but we’re trying to get rid of the chemicals here.
- Blanching – Boiling the produce, then exposing it to cold water, reduced the residue in every kind of produce except peaches. Apparently, peaches are stubborn.
It would be easy to overstate the dangers of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other agricultural chemicals to human health. The EWG is not trying to scare anyone off fruits and vegetables. They ARE, however, providing a vital information service for those of us who want to include produce in our healthy nutrition plans.
What it all really comes down to is this. Even if you have to eat conventional fruits and veggies, there are things you can do to protect yourself from nasty chemical residue. Eat organic if possible, but the baseline is this: Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables!
After all, your mom wasn’t wrong. And she probably was already taking some of the precautions we mentioned above. So be like mom – take precautions and eat the good stuff!
Keep the faith and keep after it!
- European Food Safety Authority, Conclusion Regarding the Peer Review of the Pesticide Risk Assessment of the Active Substance Diphenylamine. EFSA Scientific Report, 2008, 188.
- 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