by Todd C. Killebrew, N.D.
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a report that lists the top 12 most pesticide-contaminated (the Dirty Dozen™) and the 15 least pesticide-contaminated foods (the Clean 15™). My family and I largely use these lists to determine which foods to buy and which ones to not buy organic. The report analyzes data on the amount and types of pesticide residue found in 48 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Typically about 65 percent of all produce samples test positive for at least one pesticide.
The Dirty Dozen™
Produce you should buy organic, fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide content:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas (imported)
For the last three years, the EWG has also included two additions to the list which contain traces of some of the more dangerous pesticides. Most recently leafy greens (kale and collard greens) and hot peppers made the extended list.
You may ask, what if I properly wash the produce before eating it? Nearly all of the data used in compiling the Dirty Dozen list took washing into account. For example, apples were washed and bananas peeled before testing.
Highlights from the report include:
- A single grape and sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 different pesticides.
- Every sample of imported nectarines and 99% of all apples, 98% of peaches and 97% of nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide
- Samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides each.
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other food.
The Clean 15™
Produce you can avoid buying organic, fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide content:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Cantaloupe (domestic)
- Sweet potatoes
Highlights from the report include:
- Avocados were the cleanest of all produce tested with only 1 percent of avocado samples showing any detectable pesticides.
- 89 percent of pineapples, 82 percent of kiwi, 80 percent of papayas, 88 percent of mango and 61 percent of cantaloupe had no residues.
- Detecting multiple pesticide residues is extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5.5 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.
Is Organic Food “Healthier” Simply Because It Is Organic?
Organic food has not been shown to be healthier just by virtue of being organic. It does not necessarily have higher nutritional value as measured by the amount of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. In fact, a meta-analysis by Stanford University in 2012 analyzed 237 papers that compared the benefits of eating organic vs conventionally grown food and found no difference in nutrient levels between the two.
However when you do choose to eat organic you are more likely to avoid potentially toxic pesticides and herbicides used by conventional produce growers, many of which have been linked with a host of health issues. For example, multiple studies have shown a correlation with lower IQ, slowed mental development and increased ADHD-like behavior in children whose mothers had the highest level of pesticide exposure while pregnant.
What Does “Organic” Mean and What Does It Not Mean?
Any product labeled as 100% organic as per the USDA is guaranteed to be free of antibiotics, growth hormones, is grown without the use of “synthetic” fertilizers, pesticides or sewage components, has not been irradiated and does not contain genetically modified organisms (GMO).
What it does not guarantee is the absence of “natural” herbicides or pesticides. In fact, per the laws in most states, organic farmers are allowed to use a wide variety of chemical sprays and powders on their crops as long as the pesticides used are derived from natural sources and not synthetically produced.
This can be misleading as some “natural” pesticides can be quite toxic. In fact, some natural/organic pesticides are just as toxic as their synthetic counterparts. You may be wondering what is the point of eating organic? A recent meta-analysis did show that organically grown food does generally have lower levels of pesticides than does conventionally grown, so you are still limiting your pesticide exposure more than you would otherwise.
The only way to absolutely certain of the quality of your food is to know exactly where your food comes from as growing practices can vary greatly from farm to farm. This reinforces the value of buying locally produced food. That may sound like a daunting or impossible task, but with the proliferation of farmer’s markets in recent years, getting to know the local producers has become easier than ever. And of course you can grow some of your own produce, whether you have a large garden or just enough space for a few containers.
Bottom line: For pesticide content it’s unnecessary to purchase all of your produce organic. Just focus on the Dirty Dozen™ and save your money on the rest. And importantly, purchase all produce from sources you know and trust.