Produce and Pesticides: Must They Always Go Together?

ProducePerhaps you’re concerned about consuming pesticides along with your produce.  But perhaps you find that buying produce only if it’s labeled organic is too expensive and inconvenient.  What to do? Simple, many sources will tell you: buy organic when the produce you want is high in pesticides and save money by buying conventionally grown produce when the item is low in pesticides.  “Fine,” you reply, “but how do I know which is which?”  Easy.  Consult  “EGW’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides.” 


In case you haven’t heard of it, this well-known, recently up-dated list is prepared by the Environmental Working Group, based upon USDA-tested levels of chemical residues on conventionally grown products AFTER washing.  The full list contains 49 products, fruits and vegetables combined.  On top are the best (those with the lowest pesticide levels); the list goes down in  order to the worst  of the tested batch.  In case the suspense is too much for you, #1 is onions, and #49 is celery. 


If all this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because you heard the famous TV doctor, Sanjay Gupta, mention it on his TV special, “Toxic America,” which  ran on CNN a few times in June, 2010.  Or perhaps you saw the article “The 12 Dirtiest Fruits and Vegetables” in the August, 2010 issue of Prevention.  Or perhaps you read Dr. Andrew Weil’s online article “The Dirty Dozen: Foods to Eat Only when Grown Organically.”    


 “The Dirty Dozen” are the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide levels (listed from most to less): celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries (domestic), nectarines, sweet bell peppers, spinach,  collard greens/kale, cherries, potatoes, and grapes (imported).


Then there’s “The Clean Fifteen,” list,  the ones at the bottom of the 49.   Here they are, listed in order from best (that is, least amount of pesticides) to—well—less than best but still good.  Onion, avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, mango, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi fruit, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potato, and honeydew melon. 


To get your copy of the entire list of 49, click here: and download. As you look over the list, you deduce reasons why some fruits and vegetables are on the top half and others on the bottom half. Produce with  a thick and/or strong protective inedible exterior (avocado, watermelon, peas, corn, etc.)  is likely to little or no pesticide in the parts being consumed. On the other hand, leafy vegetables have their edible parts very much exposed to pesticides, and berries, which are fragile, need a lot of pesticide to keep  them from becoming moldy during what might be a long journey from the farm to the family dinnertable. 


Are there any other ways to avoid scary amounts of  pesticides besides buying organic versions of the “dirty dozen”?  Yes.  You can cut those foods out of your diet entirely.  (But that’s pretty drastic.) Here’s some easier advice and reassuring information from a Harvard Medical School booklet called Healthy Eating:  “One study found that washing produce with a mixture of water and mild dishwashing detergent, peeling the skins, and (for lettuce and cabbage) removing the outer leaves eliminated pesticide residues in 21% of produce.”  The publication went on to say that peeling removed all of the residues in bananas, carrots, and potatoes and that corn had no pesticide residue after being shucked. 




Environmental Working Group  EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides  “The Full List: 49 Fruits and Veggies”


FocusOrganic  “Produce—Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Updated”


Weil  “The Dirty Dozen: Foods to Eat Only  When Grown Organically”  


Prevention  “The 12 Dirtiest Fruits and Vegetables”
August, 2010, p. 55-58.


Healthy Eating: A guide to the new nutrition  A Harvard Medical School Special Health Report., “Is Organic Better?” Frank M. Sacks, M.D., medical editor,  2008.


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