Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a list of the “dirtiest” and “cleanest” fruits and vegetables, and last year 46 food items were included in the EWG analysis. The EWG has published this Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce annually since 2004.
Why is this fact important?
Because, as the EWG points out, “more than 70 percent of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides1.”
The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce identifies the crops that the farmers use more pesticides on, the called “Dirty Dozen,” and the crops that use less pesticides, the so-called “Clean Fifteen.” This list is compiled by evaluating the latest test data from the Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration2, and the produce analyzed is washed, peeled, or scrubbed and “ready to eat.” By “ready to eat”, it means it is the same produce you would eat at home, hence the pesticide residue found on these fruits and veggies is similar to the amount of residue you would be exposed to when eating pesticide-contaminated foods.
Before we move forward to introduce these lists, it is important to highlight some facts about this guide, published in 20221:
- The guide combines data from the USDA and FDA tests from 2020 and nine years earlier (except the pineapple data, which is from 2002).
- Newest data includes results of tests of nearly 45,000 samples of produce.
- Not every type of produce is tested every year by the USDA.
- Not all pesticides used on fruit and vegetable crops are tested by the USDA.
An alarming fact reported by the EWG is that the USDA does not test glyphosate contamination in crops1. Glyphosate is one of the most heavily used pesticides in the United States and can be found in high levels on several crops, especially beans and grains, including some of the most consumed foods in the USA, like one of the children’s favorites – oats!
Now, let’s take a look at the list of twelve crops most highly contaminated with pesticides in 2022 – the Dirty Dozen.
These twelve crops have the highest amounts of pesticide residue and chemical contamination1; therefore, whenever possible, buy these 12 foods organic and consider avoiding them altogether if not organic!
- Kale, collard, and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
The EWG also reports on some of the key findings from their analyses for the Dirty Dozen list1:
- Some crops are especially problematic in terms of the presence of pesticide residue. For example, according to the EWG, “more than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.”
- Spinach has, on average, 1.8 times more pesticide residue by weight than any other crop tested.
- The greens with the most pesticides detected were kale, collard, and mustard greens, with 103 pesticides, and hot peppers and bell peppers, with 101 pesticides detected.
- 21 different pesticides were found in a single sample of kale, collard, and mustard greens.
- Some of the pesticides detected on produce samples are classified as possible carcinogens by the EPA and have been banned in Europe. Potentially neurotoxic pesticides were also reported.
However, not all produce crops are heavily contaminated with pesticides, and that is why the EWG also started listing the foods with the least amount of residue. The Clean Fifteen refers to the crops analyzed that exhibit the lowest amounts of pesticide residues.
These crops have the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, on the 2022 EWG list1. If you have a limited budget for your organic foods, these are the ones you can more safely buy conventionally grown, and you do not need to purchase these foods organic.
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew Melon
- Sweet Potato
Just as with the Dirty Dozen, the Clean Fifteen also have some important facts that we believe are worth mentioning1:
- Of the fruits and vegetables included on the Clean Fifteen list, almost 70% of the samples showed no detectable pesticide residues.
- Among all the produce tested, avocados, and interestingly sweet corn, are considered the cleanest, since only in less than 2% of samples any pesticide residues were detected.
- The first six elements on this list – avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, onion, papaya, and sweet peas – only showed three or fewer pesticides per sample.
- And only under 5% of the Clean Fifteen vegetables and fruit samples exhibit residues of two or more pesticides.
A small but important note on conventionally grown foods, some of the foods that make the Clean Fifteen list, like sweet corn and papaya, can be found as GMO crops. Therefore, we would highly recommend buying these foods organic if you want to make sure to avoid GMO produce.
To sum up this information in a few, very important, sentences:
Food belonging to the Dirty Dozen – Always buy organic!
Foods in the Clean Fifteen category – Buy organic, if possible, but it is also acceptable to buy conventionally grown if it is known to be a GMO!
- EWG Science Team. EWG’s 2022 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. Apr 07, 2022. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php, accessed Jan 23, 2023.
- USDA, Pesticide Data Program. Agricultural Marketing Service. Available at: www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp.
Vanessa Pinto graduated with a degree in Biology and Masters in Ecology from Lisbon University. After graduating, she underwent a series of professional and personal growth experiences, including being an officer in the Portuguese Army, working in countries as diverse as Iceland and Costa Rica. Vanessa became certified as a Yoga and Meditation teacher in rural India.
Being a compassionate person by nature, Vanessa is able to bring her connectedness when working with others while enhancing the importance and practicality of a pragmatic evidence-based approach to facilitating lasting and permanent change. Vanessa is a certified health coach whose specialties are nutrition, exercise, and mind/ body connection. She works both in Portugal, Thailand and USA, where she develops her work closely with people diagnosed with cancer, mainly in the areas of nutrition, movement and health education.