Dirty Dozen List: Are You Eating the Most Pesticide-Laden Produce?

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Dirty dozen - Dr. Axe

The Environmental Working Group released its 2020 Dirty Dozen list, a “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” and it serves as a solid reminder that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to cleaning up the food system. This year, the report found that almost 70 percent of non-organic samples tested positive for at least one pesticide. (In many cases, the numbers were much higher.) And get this: Non-organic kale samples harbored 18 different pesticide and pesticide breakdown residues.

In USDA’s most recent tests, kale’s most common chemical contaminant was Dacthal, or DCPA, a chemical banned in the European Union since 2009 and a possible human carcinogen, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

Thankfully, EWG’s report also features a “Clean 15” list, which identifies the non-organic produce least likely to be contaminated with pesticide levels. I advise choosing and growing organic as often as possible, but if you’re on a budget or your selection is limited, these lists help you focus your attention on avoiding the most contaminated fruits and veggies. Because one thing is clear: most of us need more vegetables and fruits in our diets. 

Key Findings of the 2020 Report

  • The United States Department of Agriculture tests found 230 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on thousands of produce samples analyzed.
  • Washing and peeling produce will not remove all pesticide residues. Data for this report comes from USDA and FDA pesticide residue testing from fruits and vegetables tested as they are typically eaten. “This means it’s washed and, when applicable, peeled,” explains Alexis Temkin, PhD, co-author of the report. “For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed.”
  • Environmental Working group analyzed USDA pesticide residue data and found that almost 70 percent of non-organic produce sampled tested positive for pesticide contamination.
  • More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • Kale samples detected 18 different pesticides.
  • On average, kale and spinach samples harbored 1.1 to 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop tested.
  • Neonicotinoids pesticide residues, known for harming pollinators, were detected in/on almost one-fifth of fruits and vegetables humans eat, and may harm the develping fetus and children.
  • Residues of at least one of three neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the European Union – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – were found on more than half the samples of potatoes, spinach and lettuce tested in the United States.
  • Neonicitoinoid contamination was also found on more than one-fourth of the samples of U.S. cherries, watermelon and strawberries.

The 2020 Dirty Dozen List and Clean 15 List

EWG’s Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

Bonus: Hot Peppers

EWG’s Clean 15 

The Clean 15 list includes produce that is least likely to be contaminated by pesticides. Here are some highlights from the Clean 15 list:

  • Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest tested, with fewer than 2 percent of samples showing any detectable pesticides.
  • More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions and cabbages contained no pesticide residues.
  • None of the fruit on the Clean Fifteen list tested positive for more than four pesticides.
  • Important: Some papayas, sweet corn and summer squash in the United State is grown from GMO seeds, so in my opinion, it’s best to always choose organic in those cases.

Here’s the 2020 Clean 15 List: 

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn*
  3. Pineapples
  4. Onions
  5. Papayas*
  6. Frozen Sweet Peas
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Cantaloupe
  11. Broccoli
  12. Mushrooms
  13. Cabbage
  14. Honeydew Melon
  15. Kiwi

* Note: Some sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States are GMOs, so choose organic to avoid GMOs.

Adulterated Raisins

Generally, EWG focuses on test results from USDA’s fresh produce testing. But because the latest round of pesticide residue testing also looked at raisins, EWG included the dried fruit in this year’s rankings.

And what the organization found is startling, and all the more reason to reach for organic when you’re shopping for raisins. Raisins scored worse than strawberries, nectarines, apples and cherries. In fact, 99 precent of raisins contained at least two pesticides.

“This year, the USDA included testing data for raisins and found that 99 percent of conventional raisins had two or more pesticides residues and, on average, a single sample contained 13 different pesticides,” Temkin told DrAxe.com. “If raisins were included in our fresh produce rankings, they would have outranked strawberries as the food with the most pesticide residues.”

Interestingly, pesticides were even found on organic raisins, prompting researchers to note that prunes tend to have lower pesticide residues than both conventional and organic raisins.

Final Thoughts

  • EWG released its annual Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, highlighting the fruits and vegetables most and least likely to harbor pesticide residues.
  • Strawberries are high on the contamination list again this year,  but spinach and pears were also highlighted for extreme pesticide residues.
  • Raisins, a dried fruit, contained more contamination than even strawberries. Even organic raisins were somewhat contaminated, although not as badly, in general, as non-organic versions.
  • This list should in no way deter you from eating fruits and vegetables, but it should make you wary of modern chemical farming. Using chemicals to fumigate the soil and kill weeds, microbes and bugs has some unwanted side effects, including killing soil health and beneficial microbes.
  • Pesticides are linked to dozens of health problems, including certain cancers, symptoms of ADHD, autism, Parkinson’s and a whole host of other issues.

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