With farmer’s market season upon us, it’s a good time to remember to be careful when choosing your fresh fruits and vegetables. I recommend seeking out organic produce for one simple reason: chemical pesticides and herbicides are toxic. While the amounts you eat may be tiny, their effects are likely cumulative. Science is just now starting to find ways to identify how trace effects change the body (Curl et al., 2015). But I say it’s better to limit exposures to harmful chemicals, no matter how tiny, than play Russian roulette and hope for the best.
But I’m realistic! I know buying all-organic may be out of reach of many people’s budgets. So it pays to be savvy about what you buy from organic farmers, and what you get from conventional sources.
Several years ago, I wrote about the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and their popular list they call the Dirty Dozen, which identifies foods found to be high in pesticides even after washing or peeling.
The Dirty Dozen list keeps changing
I like to remind you about the Dirty Dozen because it’s not something to check once in a while — you should review it every year, because the rankings change on a regular basis.
For instance, apples had the highest level of chemical residues in 2012 — and stayed at the top of the list for three more years until strawberries took over. This year, strawberries are still the #1 most contaminated food, but apples have slipped to #4. Meanwhile, spinach — ranked #8 in 2016 — is now #2 on the list.
And there are new entries as well: pears, ranked at #22 in 2015, have climbed all the way up to #6 as of 2017 because EWG found that the amount of residue and the number of pesticides and fungicides more than doubled in those two years.
In our global economy, your fruits and vegetables could come from down the road or the other side of the planet. You can’t assume your grocery store is sourcing its produce from the same places all the time, or even that the farms’ pest-control practices are the same from year to year. If you have the ability grow your own fruits and vegetables, perhaps the EWG Dirty Dozen list can offer guidance on what to plant — but if you can’t, let it help you determine which foods you should select from organically grown offerings in your supermarket.
By the way, another annual list from the EWG is the Clean 15 list describing the 15 plant foods least likely to contain even trace amounts of chemicals. These are foods you can buy from conventional growers without much concern — though you should still make sure they’re fresh and wash them before eating!
Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2017 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. Available at https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php (Accessed June 6, 2017).
Curl C.L., Beresford S.A.A., Fenske R.A., et al. Estimating pesticide exposure from dietary intake and organic food choices: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Environmental Health Perspectives 2015;123(5):475-483. doi:10.1289/ehp.1408197.