These fruits and vegetables rank highest in pesticide residue. How harmful are they really? Experts weigh in

·6-min read
A grocery story worker places boxes of strawberries among other fruits and vegetables at the store. ies, have higher amounts of pesticides than others. But how harmful is it? (Photo: Getty Images)
Certain types of produce, such as strawberries, have higher amounts of pesticides than others. But how harmful is it? (Getty Images)

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which includes two lists: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen,” which rank which types of fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue, respectively.

But what should consumers do with this information? And how harmful is it to eat fruits and vegetables with pesticide residue? Here’s what you need to know, according to experts, including how to still safely consume your favorite produce.

What is the “Dirty Dozen”?

The EWG’s Dirty Dozen is a list of nonorganic foods with the most pesticide residues. The EWG analyzes recent testing samples from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Pesticide Data Program (PDP) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). For realistic consumer data, the USDA washes, scrubs and peels (if necessary) fruits and vegetables, just as people normally would, and then tests for pesticides.

Which fruits and vegetables are highest in pesticides?

The EWG found that 99% of strawberry samples (most recently tested in 2015-16) had detectable residues of at least one pesticide, earning the fruit the No. 1 spot. In addition, this year, the group found bell and hot peppers contained more pesticide residue than in the past, moving them up from 12th place to 7th place. The EWG also found that conventional spinach had on average 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight as other tested crops, and kale, collard and mustard greens had the most pesticides detected in total.

Here’s the full list of the EWG Dirty Dozen:

  1. Strawberries

  2. Spinach

  3. Kale, collard & mustard greens

  4. Nectarines

  5. Apples

  6. Grapes

  7. Bell & hot peppers

  8. Cherries

  9. Peaches

  10. Pears

  11. Celery

  12. Tomatoes

Which fruits and vegetables have the lowest levels of pesticides?

Opposite the Dirty Dozen is EWG’s Clean Fifteen — a list of fruits and vegetables with the lowest amount of pesticide residue, with about 70% of samples having no detectable amounts. Notably, many of these foods have an outer layer that you typically remove before consuming.

  1. Avocados

  2. Sweet corn

  3. Pineapple

  4. Onions

  5. Papaya

  6. Sweet peas (frozen)

  7. Asparagus

  8. Honeydew melon

  9. Kiwi

  10. Cabbage

  11. Mushrooms

  12. Cantaloupe

  13. Mangoes

  14. Watermelon

  15. Sweet potatoes

How harmful is it to eat produce with allowed pesticides?

Pesticides can be harmful in high enough quantities, Erika Crowl, agent associate of agriculture at University of Maryland Extension, tells Yahoo Life.

But Marybeth Mitcham, PhD, a nutrition, food safety and healthy living educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension, tells Yahoo Life that the Environmental Protection Agency “sets a standard of the allowed amount of pesticide that is over 100 times less than the minimum dose that could cause humans harm.”

The EPA also takes into consideration groups of people that may be more prone to any harm from pesticides, such as infants and children, explains Maxine Smith, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition. Smith tells Yahoo Life: “There’s no strong evidence at this time to indicate that eating conventional produce that has been treated with synthetic pesticides compromises one’s health.”

One useful tool for determining how much is too much is the Pesticide Residue Calculator created by the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), a nonprofit organization representing both organic and conventional farmers. AFF shows that an adult man and woman can safely eat 635 and 453 servings of conventional strawberries respectively, in one day. At eight strawberries per serving, that's the equivalent of 5,080 and 3,624 individual strawberries, respectively — amounts that are pretty much impossible to actually consume.

How valid are these reports?

The EWG argues that the EPA’s tolerances for pesticide levels are not strict enough and do not consider newer research about pesticides. However, the actual toxicity of pesticides is left out of EWG’s reports — one of the reasons why the Dirty Dozen list has been criticized for having poor methodology. The EWG itself states that its shoppers’ guide “does not incorporate risk assessment into the calculations. All pesticides are weighted equally, and we do not factor in the levels deemed acceptable by the EPA.”

Crowl says that “these types of lists are not based on unbiased, scientific-based information and are used more as a scare tactic.”

Already “Americans fall way short” when it comes to eating produce, points out Smith, with only about 10% of adults meeting fruit and vegetable intake recommendations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts argue that these lists may discourage people from purchasing foods that actually hold a lot of nutritional value. This is evident from a Nutrition Today study that found participants were less likely to purchase any sort of produce after seeing messages naming specific fruits and vegetables with pesticides.

Is organic actually better?

“Organic foods have been shown to decrease pesticide levels in the body and increase particular micronutrients, such as phytochemicals, but whether or not the difference has a positive effect on human health is still up in the air,” explains Smith. “More high-quality studies are needed before changing recommendations to limit/avoid conventional produce.”

Crowl believes “organically grown produce should not be labeled as ‘better’ than conventional” because organic production also uses pesticides, though they are “natural” and not synthetic.

However, “for some people, the environmental concerns related to organic farming will make organic produce their preferred option,” notes Mitcham.

How can you reduce the amount of pesticide residue on your favorite fruits and vegetables?

Washing your produce before eating it “not only cleans the produce of debris and residues but also cleans it from foodborne microorganisms,” states Crowl. The FDA recommends always washing your fresh produce with running water before eating it, even if you don’t plan on eating the peel.

Shauna Henley, PhD, family and consumer sciences senior agent at the University of Maryland Extension, cautions against using chlorine bleach or soaps to clean produce because of the chemical hazards related to ingesting them.

Henley tells Yahoo Life that the best way to wash produce depends on its surface. Use a produce brush on rough surfaces like melons; rub smooth surfaces like apples with your hands; and try a colander or salad spinner for leafy greens, making sure to throw away the outer leaves first. Or try a baking soda solution: A 2017 study found that soaking apples in a mixture of baking soda and water for 12 to 15 minutes removed pesticide residue.

So what should we really eat?

EWG encourages choosing organic produce whenever possible, and if it's not available or affordable, choose Clean Fifteen options. But experts say the most important thing you can do for your health is to eat more fruits and vegetables in general, organic or not.

Smith recommends choosing a variety of produce because “not only does this optimize nutrients, but it minimizes the potential for any one food that has more pesticide residue to be a problem.”

As Mitcham emphasizes, “The benefits that you will get from eating [conventional] spinach, strawberries, kale, and apples far outweigh the detriments. Just remember to wash your produce before you eat it.”

Maxine Yeung is a registered dietitian and personal trainer.

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