Image of Farmers Market Produce

I’m guessing you’re familiar with the popular Dirty Dozen™ list, published each year by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG)?  It’s a list of the fruits and vegetables in our grocery stores with the highest level of pesticide residues — the “most contaminated” produce, according to EWG.

Topping the Dirty Dozen™ list for 2021 were strawberries, spinach and kale — which are no surprise at all, since these three usually make it somewhere near the top.  Everything else on the list is generally a repeat offender from year to year, too.  For 2021, some of the others were nectarines, apples, grapes, peppers, celery and tomatoes.

Every time the list is released, there’s a big media splash with scare headlines to go along with it. News outlets even seem a little excited to be sharing this health bomb with us each spring. But EWG claims the purpose of the Dirty Dozen list isn’t to scare us away from eating fruits and vegetables, but rather to encourage us to buy organic for those 12 items, if we can afford it.

Well, today I’m here to express an unpopular view:  you can ditch the Dirty Dozen list altogether and relax about the fruits and vegetables you’re feeding your family. 

Simply put, EWG uses scare tactics to advance their fundraising agenda and more importantly — their method of measuring pesticide residues isn’t scientific at all and doesn’t reflect any true health risks. I know those are a couple of bold statements to make against EWG, so I hope you’ll take a minute to hear me out before clicking away.  I’m going to explain why I pay no attention to the Dirty Dozen List and also point you in the direction of another tool that puts things in better perspective.

How EWG Makes Its List and Why it Has Little to do With Science

EWG gets the information for their list directly from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual tests on conventional produce. The USDA conducts a rigorous Pesticide Data Program on both domestic and imported produce, using well-established human tolerance and safety levels for each pesticide.

In 42.5% of produce tested in 2019 by the USDA, no pesticides were detected at all. Nearly 99% of those samples with detectable pesticides had tiny trace amounts, in some cases as low as 1000 times below established toxic levels. [Source: USDA Pesticide Data Program]

EWG then jumps all over the USDA data and bases their “dirty list” on the number of different pesticides found on strawberries, for example, not the amounts of each pesticide found. Even the way they calculate the number of pesticides on each sample is gobbledygook – which is scientific speak for – it makes no sense!

Are you ready for their formula? EWG takes the percent of samples tested with detectable pesticide, percent of samples with two or more pesticides, average number of pesticides found on a sample, average amount of all pesticide found, maximum number of pesticides and the total number of pesticides and ADDS THEM ALL UP. [Source] {Scroll to page 4}

It’s clear their formula is redundant. I mean, how many ways can you count the same number? It’s also clear EWG doesn’t assess pesticide levels in relation to their known health risks. This is probably the reason when you see those scare headlines in the media each year, you won’t find scientists jumping in to add their support.

The Dirty Dozen™ list is not legitimate science news and in fact many toxicologists refute it. [Read more here and here]. A couple of groups have repeatedly called on EWG to discontinue the list, since it’s been shown in some studies to discourage people — many of them lower income — from eating fruits and vegetables

Are Organic Fruits and Vegetables Better?

There’s a misconception that certified organic means no pesticides were used, but this is false. In the U.S., organic farmers are allowed to choose from a government-approved list of about 90 pesticides, most of them naturally derived,

It follows then that organic produce — just like conventionally grown  — has pesticide residues. In a few cases, the USDA has even detected higher pesticide residues on organic produce than conventional. Again, it’s all in the dose or levels, with each pesticide having an established safe tolerance level.

Turns out that EWG doesn’t include test results for organic produce in their Dirty Dozen – so while they strongly advocate buying organic for the 12 offenders, they haven’t compared organic to conventionally-grown.

To answer the question: should we buy organic just to be on the safe side?  Based on what I’ve learned, I would say if you can afford to buy organic and it’s readily available to you — then go for it!  There’s no harm in eating organic produce. My point is you shouldn’t skip certain produce if you can’t buy organic and you shouldn’t worry if you can’t remember which fruits and veggies are on the Dirty Dozen™ list.

An Alternative to EWG’s Scare Tactics

I discovered a different non-profit that seems to offer a less biased view on this. Unlike EWG,  the Alliance for Food & Farming doesn’t accept financial donations and doesn’t engage in any lobbying. AFF is member-supported by both organic and conventional farmers.

The Alliance has an online calculator at safefruitsandveggies.com that shows how many servings of an individual fruit or vegetable you’d need to eat daily before reaching a minimum toxic level. They use the same data provided by the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program. Be sure to check it out if you have time.

I made this sample chart based on their data, just to give you an idea. Keep in mind, they’re talking about servings per day, not number of strawberries, for example.

Even if it were humanly possible for a child between ages 2-5 to eat 340 apples in one day – we would still be talking about a pesticide level that showed no observable adverse effects, after extensive testing. I don’t know about you, but that eases my mind about produce safety.

EWG is Involved in Political Lobbying, not Science

I mentioned at the outset that EWG uses the Dirty Dozen list and many of their other news and lists to advance their fundraising. This is a view expressed by some watchdog groups and something I’ve found from my own experience. I receive all their scary emails and it seems their main goal is to drive me to their website to ask for a donation.

Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables for Better Health

Finally, let’s acknowledge the amazing health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables. This is a case where the benefits far outweigh the risks of potentially ingesting a trace amount of a pesticide.

The advantages of eating produce have been well-proven in many studies, decade after decade. If you eat the recommended amounts (for adults, it’s one to two cups of fruit per day and up to three cups of vegetables per day*), you are taking preventive measures against heart disease, cancer, diabetes and other serious health conditions. 

Sad to say, we Americans are doing an abysmal job of meeting these guidelines. The CDC says only 12 percent of Americans eat the recommended amount of fruit and only 9 percent get the recommended amount of vegetables a day. 

Still Not Convinced? Then Wash Your Produce!

If you still have concerns about pesticides, you worry about bio-accumulation or you just don’t trust government testing or guidelines – I get it — because I’ve been there, too. Another good option to counter all of this is to wash your produce really well. It won’t remove 100% of residues, but it can greatly reduce any pesticides, along with dirt and bacteria.

You don’t need to buy any special produce wash in a plastic bottle (adding plastic waste to the landfill). In fact, the Alliance for Food and Farming doesn’t recommend using soap for fruits and vegetables at all. They recommend throwing away the outer leaves of any leafy vegetables like lettuce or cabbage. Then wash all produce well with cold or warm running tap water. You can scrub with a produce brush when appropriate. And that’s it!

Key Takeaways

I truly believe we can all relax and ditch the Dirty Dozen list since it’s not based on any meaningful science. Buy organic if you can afford it and can find it; don’t worry if you can’t. Wash your fruits and vegetables really well. And don’t forget to aim for the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables each day to help you live longer and healthier!

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Disclaimer

I am not a licensed nutritionist, medical professional or cosmetics expert. The information provided on Honest + Simple is for general informational purposes only. The statements on this website have not been been evaluated by the Food + Drug Administration and are not intended to treat, prevent or cure any disease. Before making decisions about your health or other concerns, please consult a qualified professional and do not rely on this website for medical advice.

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