People should be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables—it’s the one piece of advice that all the health authorities and gurus seem to agree on. But you’ve probably also heard that many common fruits and vegetables have high levels of pesticides and agricultural chemicals. Is this true? What about organic? Is it really better?

To help consumers make informed choices, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests common fruits and vegetables for pesticide levels every year releasing the produce items with the highest levels of contamination, called the “Dirty Dozen,” along with the produce with the lowest levels of pesticides, called the “Clean Fifteen.” In 2014, the EWG lists included the following produce items:

Dirty Dozen (Plus)Clean Fifteen
ApplesAvocados
StrawberriesSweet Corn
GrapesPineapples
CeleryCabbage
PeachesFrozen sweet peas
SpinachOnions
Sweet bell peppersAsparagus
NectarinesMangoes
CucumbersPapaya
Cherry tomatoesKiwi
Snap peas - importedEggplant
PotatoesGrapefruit
Hot peppersCantaloupe
Kale/collard greensCauliflower
Sweet Potatoes

The EWG added hot peppers and kale/collard greens as “Plus” items to the “Dirty Dozen” list this year, bringing the total to 14. These items didn’t score high on the concentration of pesticide residues, but the type of pesticides used were “unusually hazardous,” according to the EWG.

It’s important to note that just because there is pesticide residue found on produce, it doesn’t mean that ingesting that residue is harmful. According to the EWG, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.”

And the list itself has been called into question. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Toxicology concluded that consumer exposure to pesticides via the “Dirty Dozen” items “are at negligible levels and that the EWG methodology is insufficient to allow any meaningful rankings among commodities.” It further concluded that there is no indication that swapping out conventionally grown “Dirty Dozen” items for organic ones will “lead to any measurable consumer health benefit.”

The best advice? Carefully clean and prepare fresh fruits and vegetables before eating to reduce the risk of ingesting contaminants—whether they are pesticides or bacteria that could lead to food-borne illness. Buy local, farm fresh produce whenever you can. Before eating any fruits or vegetables, the FDA recommends:

  • Washing fruits and vegetables under running water before eating, cutting, or cooking.
  • Not using soap, detergent, or commercial produce washes to clean produce.
  • Cutting away any bruised or damaged areas and discard any produce that looks rotten.
  • Washing fruit—even if you plan to peel it before eating—to prevent dirt or bacteria from being transferred to the edible portion when you cut.
  • Scrubbing firm produce (e.g., melons, cucumbers) with a clean produce brush.
  • Drying produce with a cloth or paper towel to reduce any bacteria that may be present.

Takeaways

  • Eat more fruits and vegetables in general—the health benefits outweigh the risks associated with pesticides.
  • Wash produce carefully before you eat or cook it, using the FDA guidelines.
  • It’s far better to eat conventionally grown produce than to avoid fresh fruits and vegetables because of pesticide concerns.

References

  1. Environmental Working Group. Shopping Guide.
  2. Journal of Toxicology. Dietary Exposure to Pesticide Residues from Commodities Alleged to Contain the Highest Contamination Levels.
  3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Raw Produce: Selecting and Serving it Safely.

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  2. Its best to grow your own, or have a farmer friend.

    Reply
  3. This was very interesting. I once had an allergic reaction after eating an apple even though I washed it there was still some kind of residue on it. Now I peel apples before eating them.

    Reply
  4. I try to buy as many organic fruits and vegetables as possible but sometimes the selection isn’t great so I opt for covential. It’s refreshing to read that buying convential is better than buying nothing at all!

    Reply
  5. Yikes, guess I need to make sure to get organic strawberries next time!

    Reply
  6. Great article! I’ve always been told that anything with a thick skin (bananas, oranges, etc) is ok to buy conventional. I do opt for organic when buying berries, grapes, and apples. Organic or not, I always wash my produce very well before eating.

    Reply

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