One of the questions I get asked most often when someone is switching to a healthier diet is what they can buy organic and what is “okay” to be purchased conventionally. Although I almost exclusively opt for organic, there are a few things that I’ll pick up the conventional version of because it is so much cheaper and the pesticide levels are low or almost non-existent with proper washing. (Avocados are a great example of this.) Then there are things I avoid at all costs unless I can find them organic like apples, greens, berries, and grapes. So, how do you know what to source organic and when it’s okay to opt for conventional?
Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ with the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists that makes it ten times easier to figure out which fruits and vegetables are “okay” to buy conventional and which we should absolutely buy organic. The EWG’s list is compiled from data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which routinely tests produce for pesticide residues. Forty-six fruits and vegetables are included in the analysis and from that, the top 12 foods contaminated with the most pesticides make it onto the “Dirty Dozen” and the cleanest 15 foods make it onto the “Clean 15.”
According to EWG, nearly 70% of non-organic produce sold in U.S. stores contain residues consisting of harmful chemical pesticides and fungicides. Imazalil, a fungicide that can change hormone levels and is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a likely human carcinogen, was detected on nearly 90% of citrus samples tested by EWG in 2020, and over 95% of tangerine samples tested by the USDA in 2019.
In the USDA’s most recent tests, the pesticide most frequently detected on kale, collard, and mustard greens was DCPA (“Dacthal”). The EPA classifies DCPA as a possible human carcinogen and it was banned by the European Union in 2009. Other pesticides detected on greens included neurotoxic neonicotinoids and pyrethroids.
Peppers contained high levels of acephate and chlorpyrifos – organophosphate insecticides that can harm children’s developing brains and are banned from use on some crops in the U.S. and entirely in the EU.
Glyphosate (or Round-up) was not tested, despite being the most heavily used pesticide in the United States. High levels of glyphosate can be found in several grains and beans, such as oats and chickpeas, due to its use as a pre-harvest drying agent. Currently, over 90% of U.S. corn, upland cotton, and soybeans are genetically engineered and drowned in Round-up. Even though none of these foods were evaluated for the EWG’s list, you’ll want to source these organic.
Below is the 2021 Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 list. Save it. Print it. Use it the next time you’re at the store and you can’t decide whether you should pay the $3.00 for the organic avocado or a dollar for conventional.
The “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” List
“Dirty Dozen” Key Findings
Key findings from the EWG’s report showed that 90% of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy greens tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
One sample of kale, collards, and mustard greens had up to 20 different pesticides. Spinach contained 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight as any other crop. Definitely make sure you avoid the conventional version of these lovelies at all costs.
Hot peppers and bell peppers had the most pesticides detected with 115 pesticides total. Organic peppers are more expensive, but it’s worth it to buy organic, grow your own peppers, or find a farmer’s market where you can buy organic peppers for less than the conventional price.
“Clean 15” Key Findings
The fruits and vegetables on the Clean 15 list had the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, according to EWG’s analysis of the most recent USDA data. Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest. Fewer than 2% of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
The first seven Clean 15 crops tested positive for three or fewer pesticides on a single sample, and almost 70% of the fruits and vegetables on this list had no pesticide residues. Only 8% of the Clean 15 samples tested had two or more pesticides.
You might want to know where everything else in the middle stacked up, which is why I’ve also provided you with the complete list. Note that sweet corn, summer squash, and papaya should only be purchased organic because they are often genetically modified and sprayed with cancer-causing glyposhate.
EWG’s Complete List of Pesticides in Produce
Tips for Washing Conventional Produce
Removing pesticide residues from fresh produce is essential to reduce your exposure if you’re buying conventional. A study conducted by Dr. He and published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry investigated the effectiveness of water, bleach (Clorox), and baking soda in removing surface and internal pesticide residues from apples.
The results showed that submerging apples in a baking soda solution for two minutes removed more pesticides than a two-minute soak with bleach or rinsing in running tap water. But it took 12 to 15 minutes in the baking soda solution to completely get rid of the pesticides used in the study. Results also showed that baking soda became less effective as pesticides penetrated deep into the peel or through the peel and into the flesh of the fruit.
Another effective option for removing pesticide residues from produce is to use a solution of apple cider vinegar and salt water. In a study published in Food Control, soaking vegetables in vinegar for 20 minutes or in a salt and water solution to removed chlorpyrifos, DDT, cypermethrin, and chlorothalonil pesticides.
Remember that washing produce (and even peeling it) doesn’t necessarily get rid of all pesticides, but it can reduce your exposure. Be sure to keep these lists on your phone or print them off so the next time you’re at the store, you know which fruits and vegetables you should absolutely buy organic.