Pesticides on Produce: The New ‘Dirty Dozen’ List

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Photo by Dani Vincek/Fotolia
The edible parts of thick-skinned fruits, such as avocados and bananas, are fairly protected from pesticide residue.

Have you ever wondered which pieces of pristine-looking produce to avoid at the grocery store because of herbicide and pesticide residues? For 12 years, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) has conducted a thorough annual analysis of 48 popular types of produce to answer just that question: Which fruits and vegetables contain the most pesticide residues?

The EWG publishes the results in its annual “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” ranking the worst offenders in its Dirty Dozen list and giving a shoutout to the relatively residue-free produce on its Clean Fifteen list. While apples topped the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list for five years running, strawberries came in No. 1 as this year’s most contaminated conventionally grown type of produce. According to the EWG, 98 percent of strawberry samples tested had detectable pesticide residues. Forty percent of samples had residues of 10 or more pesticides, and some had residues of 17 different pesticides — quite a chemical cocktail for a pint of strawberries. The EWG says that while some of the chemicals detected on the strawberries are relatively benign, others are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems.

The EWG has recently started to include a Dirty Dozen Plus category in its report. This section highlights types of produce that didn’t rank in the Dirty Dozen list based on the traditional scoring criteria, but that were found to contain particularly toxic types of pesticides. This year, kale, collard greens, and hot peppers were spotlighted in the Dirty Dozen Plus. Samples contained residues of strong, harmful organophosphate and carbamate insecticides that are toxic to human brains and nervous systems, particularly in children.

In this year’s Clean Fifteen, avocados had the lowest pesticide load. Only 1 percent of avocado samples revealed any detectable pesticides. Roughly 89 percent of pineapples, 81 percent of papayas, 78 percent of mangos, 73 percent of kiwi, and 62 percent of cantaloupes had no residues.

While the EWG’s annual report does a great job of shedding real-time insight into the most pesticide-contaminated fruits and vegetables, it’s important to note that this analysis doesn’t factor in any environmental costs of pesticide and herbicide spraying. The best way to push back against the use of agricultural chemicals that are potentially harmful to ecosystems and your own health is to grow your own food, opt for USDA Certified Organic produce, or purchase ingredients from local growers who are transparent about their farming practices. However, for folks who don’t have easy access to these options, knowing which fruits and vegetables likely contain the most pesticides is a helpful and important step for making decisions about what goes into their shopping carts.

Dirty Dozen

• Strawberries
• Apples
• Nectarines
• Peaches
• Celery
• Grapes
• Cherries
• Spinach
• Tomatoes
• Sweet bell peppers
• Cherry tomatoes
• Cucumbers

Clean Fifteen

• Avocados
• Sweet corn
• Pineapple
• Cabbage
• Sweet peas (frozen)
• Onions
• Asparagus
• Mangos
• Papayas
• Kiwi
• Eggplant
• Honeydew melon
• Grapefruit
• Cantaloupe
• Cauliflower