Consider the list a guide, not a mandate.

By Kimberly Holland
Updated July 15, 2019
Credit: Getty Images

Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a new list of the 12 fruits and vegetables they say have the most pesticides. Some of the amounts are shocking. In 2019, for example, strawberries topped the list with an average of 7.8 different pesticides per sample, the researchers wrote in their analysis.

“The average American eats about eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year – and with them, dozens of pesticides, including chemicals that have been linked to cancer and reproductive damage, or that are banned in Europe,” the report says.

The second item on their list of the most pesticide-ridden plant foods is spinach, a food the EWG says averages 7.1 pesticides. One sample, they claim, had 19 different pesticides or chemical byproducts.

“Federal data shows that conventionally grown spinach has more pesticide residues by weight than all other produce tested, with three-fourths of samples tested contaminated with a neurotoxic bug killer banned from use on food crops in Europe,” EWG wrote.

But perhaps what’s most upsetting for many consumers is the fact this list, commonly called the Dirty Dozen, contains many of the fruits and vegetables people eat regularly or feed their kids as a breakfast or snack—kale, apples, grapes, and tomatoes are also in the top spots. That puts many shoppers in a conundrum: continue to buy the conventional products or heed the warning and buy only organic, which often comes with a hefty price tag increase?

That’s a predicament some critics of the EWG lists—they also release one with the 15 “cleanest” fruits and vegetables—believe isn’t necessary. Indeed, many researchers caution consumers to view the environmental group’s accounting with a skeptical eye. Here’s why.

Every year when the updated Dirty Dozen list is released, it makes splashy headlines. Some critics say the truth behind the sensational findings is a nuanced reality many don’t pick up just by reading a list of the “dirtiest” foods. That truth is this: the EWG and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which does most of the pesticide testing, doesn’t measure for the quantity of the pesticides in these foods.

It turns out, most of the pesticides they detect are hundreds, if not thousands, of times lower than the Food and Drug Administration’s conservative thresholds for toxicity. These plants may indeed have several different kinds of pesticides, but the amounts are so insignificant, so miniscule, the critics of the list argue they may have virtually zero impact on your health or wellbeing.

What’s more, organic produce isn’t pesticide-free. Organic farmers can use pesticides on their crops—and many do. They just can’t use certain synthetic ones.

As a result, organic farmers sometimes have to use higher doses of their natural pesticides because they may not be as effective as the synthetic alternatives. A conventional farmer may spray his crops twice in one growing season, while an organic farmer may spray his four or five times. They’d only show up as one chemical in an analyzation database like the USDA one the EWG studies for their annual list, but the quantity—that is, how much remains by the time its gets to your kitchen counter—just isn’t clear. It could be nearly nothing, or it could indeed be higher, at levels that may be problematic. But the EWG list won’t tell you that, and that makes understanding the Dirty Dozen list a bit complex.

Do you really have to buy organic?

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you’re less likely to buy a particular fruit or vegetable—or even any fruits or vegetables—because you can’t find or can’t afford the organic version, the wrong message is coming across from this list. In one study from Nutrition Today, when low-income grocery shoppers were given informational statements about organic versus conventional produce, it didn’t make them more likely to buy organic food. It actually made them less likely to buy any fruits or vegetables.

That’s not at all the message organic advocates are hoping consumers takeaway. Even the EWG, in their report, writes that, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.”

They add that, “EWG recommends that whenever possible, consumers purchase organic versions of produce on the Dirty Dozen list. When organic versions are unavailable or not affordable, EWG advises consumers to continue eating fresh produce, even if conventionally grown.”

Some large produce-pesticide tests don’t even look for synthetic pesticides when they’re analyzing the plants for trace amounts of chemicals. You can’t know how much you’re eating of these “natural” pesticides if no one is testing for them.

Also, the argument that organic product is more nutritious than conventional doesn’t hold water either. In more than one study, researchers have found that conventional produce has nearly the same amount of nutrients as their organic counterparts. Any differences in vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients are negligible.

The Bottom Line

You can be supportive of the principles of organic farming—helping the earth, water, and air—and not prohibit yourself from buying conventionally grown produce because of your proclivity toward more sustainable farming practices. Likewise, you can appreciate that the EWG’s position on the presence of so many pesticides in one food is that the cumulative impacts of these chemicals could have some unforeseen consequences researchers haven’t discovered yet. You may also have sincere worries about what pesticides do to you, your family, and others who eat the foods you prepare.

You can do all those things and still not buy organic all the time, in every situation. Organic produce is not the end-all of farming. Reports like the EWG’s Dirty Dozen go a long way toward helping people understand how their foods may be impacted by farming practices, but it doesn’t paint an entirely clear portrait of what you’re consuming in each bite.

The primary goal, whether you’re buying strawberries by the pint for shortbread or kale by the bushel for green smoothies, is to eat as many fruits, vegetables, and grains as you can. Research clearly points to the fact that diets rich in these foods lower your risks for many health conditions, from diabetes and heart disease to cancer and dementia. If you can afford the organic markup, go for it. If you can’t, don’t worry. As long as you’re eating these healthful plant foods, you’re doing more good than harm.