The Environmental Working Group’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Produce

article image
Photo by Adobe Stock/dmitrilo
Washing produce removes dirt and insects, but not pesticide residue.

Although many people aim to avoid pesticides in their produce, the line between “safe” and “unsafe” foods is anything but clear. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is striving to help consumers find that line with the 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Grounded in the belief that most people should be eating better fruits and vegetables, the guide will help you choose the foods that put you at the lowest risk of pesticide contamination.

The EWG tested thousands of produce samples, discovering 230 different pesticides and trace agricultural chemicals, and dramatic differences in the toxin loads of different fruits and vegetables. For instance, more than 98 percent of the sampled strawberries, cherries, and apples tested positive for at least one kind of pesticide, but less than 1 percent of avocados and sweet corn samples were contaminated. Spinach is also surprisingly loaded with pesticides; samples showed it contained almost twice the pesticide residue per weight as other crops.

This year’s publication also addresses the assumption that washing or peeling conventionally grown produce eliminates all traces of pesticide residue. In fact, over 70 percent of the sampled produce remained contaminated after washing or peeling.

While some readers might see these findings as a reason to avoid eating fresh fruits and vegetables altogether, the EWG guide offers a better solution. It defines the “Dirty Dozen” products that are best bought organic, and the “Clean Fifteen” crops that rarely have detectable pesticide residues. Shoppers can use the guide to fill up on produce in the healthiest ways that are realistic for their lifestyles.

The EWG has produced consumer guidelines since 1995, in light of increasing understanding of the dangers pesticides pose to health. A landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences, published in 1993, drew attention to the risks of children being exposed to agricultural pesticides through their diets. While researchers agree that parents shouldn’t prevent children from eating fresh produce, prolonged exposure to these chemicals was found to lead to later health risks. For instance, chlorpyrifos, an insecticide applied to apples, peaches, peppers, and other produce, is a known neurotoxin that can harm developing brains and nervous systems.

Other studies have confirmed these concerns about pesticides. A report from the Harvard School of Public Health identified an association between tainted produce and fertility issues. Women who consumed two or more servings of contaminated produce each day were 25 percent less likely to have a successful pregnancy, and men who ate similar amounts had lower-quality sperm. Studies such as these raise concerns about other health conditions that might be linked to pesticide residue in our foods.

The EWG encourages shoppers to educate themselves so they can make smart decisions about the chemicals they consume. Because it appears that even trace amounts of pesticides can cause problems over time for human bodies, it’s never been more important to be informed.