Posted on June 22, 2011 - by

Eat Smart: Avoiding Pesticides While Saving Money

Of all the reasons to buy organic produce, many people cite “avoiding pesticides” as their top motivator: 98% of conventional apples and 96% of conventional celery contain pesticide residues. But not all conventional produce is ridden with chemicals. Residues were found on less than 10% of conventional onions, sweet corn, and asparagus.

To help consumers make informed choices about what produce to buy organic and what’s safe to purchase conventional, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released the seventh edition of its “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen,” which compile the most and least contaminated conventional fruits and vegetables into accessible lists based on data from the USDA’s Pesticide Testing Program.

Apples topped this year’s Dirty Dozen, with 98% of samples containing residues and 56 different pesticides detected. Mushrooms made it into the Clean 15 for the first time. See the lists below or check out the full study to learn how the in-between produce stacked up.

Hidden Threats

Pesticides are designed to kill living organisms, so it’s no surprise that they negatively impact human health. Over time, exposure to the pesticides used on food products can cause birth defects, nerve damage, hormone disruption, and cancer. Babies and children face the greatest risks, because their organs are still developing and they eat and drink more than adults do in relation to their body weight. A 2009 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found pesticides in blood and urine samples of 96% of Americans age 6 and older.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is charged with regulating the safety of pesticides used in the US and determining limits (“tolerances”) on how much of each chemical may be left on food sold to consumers. But current standards don’t do enough to protect our health. Residue monitoring only covers those pesticides that are registered for use in the US, so tests may not even detect some highly toxic chemicals. (A 2009 study showed that FDA inspections did not test for 71% of the pesticides used on squash and 61% used on chayote grown in Costa Rica for the US market.) Federal scientists recently found 33 unapproved pesticides on nearly half of cilantro samples, indicating that sporadic testing is not sufficient to protect consumers. Moreover, established “safe” limits do not effectively account for combinations of the many pesticides present on foods and various sources of exposure to chemicals in our air, water, personal care products, and household cleaning supplies that collectively impact our health.

What Can I Do?

Washing and peeling your produce can help reduce pesticide exposure, but do not eliminate residue. Many chemicals are absorbed systemically, so no amount of washing will remove them. Inspectors prepare each fruit or vegetable as it would normally be eaten before testing (e.g. peeling bananas, washing apples and peaches), so detected residues reflect what actually goes into your body when you eat each food.   

The health benefits of a diet full of fruits and vegetables—conventional or organic—far outweigh the health risks presented by pesticide residues on produce. But you can substantially reduce your exposure to these toxic substances by choosing organic versions of the 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated by pesticides. If you can’t go all organic, the Clean 15 helps you choose the safest conventional produce.

 Dirty Dozen

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes (imported)
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries (domestic)
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale/collard greens

Clean Fifteen

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplants
  9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms

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  1. Visit My Website

    June 24, 2011


    Ian said:

    This is depressing because theres no ready source of organic fruits that I know of near where I live. And to change my wifes buying habits (she is the chief food buyer in our home) is a chore. It leaves one despairing of ever eating truly healthy food.

  2. Visit My Website

    June 24, 2011


    Al said:

    This is a misleading post. There are organic pesticides out there, and detection and concentration are two entirely different issues.

    FYI: Certified organic pesticides typically require much higher concentrations than their non-organic cousins to be effective.

    I recommend that you retract this post and become more familiar with the subject before alarming people.

    These two articles present more balanced and informed information:

  3. Visit My Website

    June 24, 2011


    John L. Walker said:

    Last week melons were on the list of the dirtiest fruits to select. This week cantaloupes were on the list of the cleanest. What is up? Why the competing lists one week apart?

  4. Visit My Website

    June 24, 2011


    Connie said:

    you list the clean 13, but isn’t corn mostly GMO? are any of these clean of pesticides but genetically modified?

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    June 24, 2011


    Margoe said:

    Never be in a rush to judgement. It appears that we need to take in all the information, research and facts to make a concientious deceision when buying any produce organic or other. Just as we are particular about our diet in general. Maybe we need to be very particular about any food we buy.

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    June 25, 2011


    Stan said:

    I normally buy organic produce but I wonder about blueberries. Target sells Wild Maine blueberries. If in fact these are truly wild, they would be unsprayed, right? Or is wild another word like natural, virtually meaningless? If in fact they are advertised as wild and are farm grown and thus sprayed, that would be just plain false advertising. I guess I should check with Target.

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    June 25, 2011


    Crystal Cun said:

    John: The lists are updated annually, based on USDA testing results, so a food that might be on the Dirty Dozen one year could fall off the next year.

    Connie: Much of US corn is GM, but I believe everything else on the Clean Fifteen is not. To avoid GM, you can look for organic products.

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    June 27, 2011


    Al said:

    you must live on a farm, have lived on a farm, live in a rural area, or have been a former FFA member to understand this remark; USA consumers require a picture perfect food commodity that is
    1 cheap
    2 convenient
    3 labor free
    4 can be grown in a backyard

    organic growing requires “pesticides” true definition is kills a pest.
    some are from fish, marigolds, chrysanthemum.

    Look at what getting rid of DDT did for malaria, yellow fever, and the fire ant.

    Some people need to go to the country and see how the USA is so fortunate and God blessed. It is just unfortunate that people who see themselves as dogooders are truly “ignorant as far as knowing what the true situation is.