Produce: The good, the bad and the dirty

Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks fruits and vegetables that are highest in pesticide residues. The EWG draws on laboratory data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), specifically the former’s Pesticide Testing Program. Produce tested as part of this program may include those from domestic farms or those that have been imported from other countries.
Many produce growers claim that their fruits and vegetables contain no detectable pesticide residues. On the contrary, data from the USDA revealed that 64 percent of the produce tested had detectable residues (EWG, 2015).

Why should we be concerned about pesticides? U.S. and international government agencies claim that exposure to and ingestion of pesticides over the long term may lead to a number of health conditions. These may include certain forms of cancer, nervous system disorders, diabetes, heart disease, dementia and hormone disruption.

Many of the foods tested by the USDA and FDA contained at least five different pesticide residues! This is because some pesticides are useful for treating specific fruits and vegetables while others can prevent insect infestations.

It is estimated that humans are exposed to many pesticides on a daily basis, not just through our food supply but through environmental exposure as well. If we are able to limit our exposure as much as possible, we can hopefully avoid some of the conditions listed above.

To help you limit your exposure, the EWG has created a guide to the Dirty Dozen — the 12 foods highest in pesticide residues:

1. Strawberries
2. Apples
3. Nectarines
4. Peaches
5. Celery
6. Grapes
7. Cherries
8. Spinach
9. Tomatoes
10. Sweet bell peppers
11. Cherry tomatoes
12. Cucumbers

Instead of completely avoiding these foods, you can limit your exposure to potentially harmful pesticides by purchasing the organic versions of these items. Look for the USDA Certified Organic seal, which verifies that they’ve been grown without the use of genetic engineering, radiation, sewer sludge, or synthetic chemicals or fertilizers.

The EWG also has released a list of the Clean Fifteen — foods lowest in pesticide residues:

1. Avocados
2. Sweet corn
3. Pineapples
4. Cabbage
5. Frozen sweet peas
6. Onions
7. Asparagus
8. Mangos
9. Papayas
10. Kiwi
11. Eggplant
12. Grapefruit
13. Cantaloupe
14. Cauliflower
15. Sweet potatoes

Particularly if you’re on a tight budget, you might want to consider buying the non-organic version of these foods. However, buying certified organic products as often as possible is likely beneficial not only for reducing your pesticide exposure, but also for potentially providing you with more nutrients. Researchers are finding that organically grown produce may have higher levels of disease-fighting nutrients, ranging from 5 percent to 100 percent more nutrients!


By Neal Malik, DrPH, MPH, RDN, CHES, EP-C, associate professor, Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program at Bastyr University California.


By Neal Malik, DrPH, MPH, RDN, CHES, EP-C, associate professor, Master of Science in Nutrition for Wellness program at Bastyr University California.