In their natural form, you can virtually eat as many fruits and vegetables as you want. They're nature's war chest of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals and more. But with modern agriculture, many farmers use an abundance of pesticides and herbicides that, when used improperly, can be poisonous to your health.
EWG (the Environmental Working Group) has published a list of the Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables and another list of the Clean Fifteen, to help guide consumers to the produce found with the highest residue of herbicides and pesticides and those with the least.
With more and more diets like the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diet suggesting consumers load up on berries and leafy greens, understanding what's on the list, and what to do with the information is more important than ever.
The Dirty Dozen Fruits and Vegetables
The next 5 dirtiest fruits and vegetables
13. Sweet Bell Peppers (green, red, orange, yellow peppers)
14. Cherry tomatoes
The Clean Fifteen Fruits and Vegetables
- Frozen Peas
- Honeydew Melon
The next 5 cleanest fruits and vegetables
18. Sweet potatoes
20. Summer Squashes
How did EWG come up with the Dirty Dozen list?
EWG used data from tests done and published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). When testing, the USDA prepared the food as most people would at home. Most importantly, items that tended to be eaten with the peel (like strawberries, apples and blueberries), were tested with the peel on and washed under cold water. Items that tended to be eaten without the peel (like avocado, pineapple and onion), were tested without the peel.
As a result, those fruits and vegetables that tend to be eaten with the skin or peel on, tended to test higher for pesticides and herbicides. Those fruits and vegetables where the peel is not ingested, tended to test better, with fewer herbicides and pesticides.
Is the Dirty Dozen List Misleading?
The list does not evaluate the risk associated with the levels of herbicide and pesticide exposure found in the tests. What's interesting, is that we can't find a claim made by EWG that any of the tests exceeded the USDA pesticide or herbicide limits. The list merely ranks which fruits and vegetables tested for the most or the least amount of herbicides and pesticides.
That distinction is significant, because EWG, although it uses very suggestive and powerful language like the "dirty dozen" and "the clean fifteen", doesn't suggest, claim or prove that any of the fruits contain amounts of herbicides or pesticides that are dangerous to humans.
In fact, the USDA, FDA and EPA have given a passing grade to the trace amounts of herbicides and pesticides for each of the fruits and vegetables on the list.
How to Eat Fruits and Vegetables Differently
So what do we make of the list? If you're worried about exposure to herbicides and pesticides on your fruits and vegetables, here's a quick list of things you can do to minimize your exposure:
- Buy organic
- To save money limit organic purchases of fruits and vegetables to those you'll be eating with the peel or skin on
- Peel your non-organic fruit
- Wash your fruit with water (add baking soda to get rid of even more pesticides & herbicides)
That said, many public health scientists recommend consumers continue eating fruits and vegetables, even with herbicide and pesticide residue, arguing the benefits far outweigh the downsides. Moreover, it's important to note, the USDA's tests revealed that over 99% of the fruit and vegetables tested, fell at or below the safe ranges established by the EPA and FDA.
As one article in Harvard Health's magazine put it "the most important step you can take toward a healthier diet is simply eating more fruits and vegetables, whether they're organic or not. The health benefits of eating more produce—even if it is conventionally grown—far outweigh the downsides of higher pesticide residues."