Environmental Working Group (EWG) just issued their annual lists of the "dirtiest" and "cleanest" produce when it comes to pesticide residues. The rankings look nearly identical to last year's list with one notable exception: Kale now appears high on the Dirty Dozen list, ranked third behind strawberries and spinach. But not everyone agrees there's reason for worry.
According to EWG, most of the conventionally grown kale samples showed at least two or more pesticide residues; some had up to 18 different pesticides on them. EWG creates their rankings by analyzing data from the USDA and FDA, which test washed, peeled produce to mimic how those foods are typically eaten.
For foods on the Dirty Dozen list EWG recommends choosing organic to limit pesticide exposure.
The Dirty Dozen
On the flipside, EWG says the produce on their Clean 15 list had little (if any) pesticide residues and low (if any) amounts.
The Clean 15
Should You Worry?
But while some shoppers take the lists as gospel (EWG issues a printable, wallet-sized version of the lists), others say the rankings do more harm than good by needlessly alarming consumers.
None of the pesticide residues found on the Dirty Dozen produce come close to exceeding what the EPA says is safe. The mere presence of a pesticide residue doesn't necessarily equal harm. For instance, EWG points to a pesticide called DCPA found on kale that they say is a possible carcinogen. But our estimated exposure to DCPA from the Dirty Dozen list in 2010 (which included kale) is nearly 100,000 times lower than the level of health concern, says Carl Winter, PhD, a specialist in cooperative extension at University California Davis Department of Food Science and Technology who published his findings in the Journal Of Toxicology (and says he has no ties to the pesticide or agriculture industries).
EWG acknowledges that the lists aren't based on a "complex assessment of pesticide risks" but rather whether pesticide residues were found, how many were found, and the concentration of them. They argue that with testing and research constantly evolving, it's impossible to say pesticides are harmless, so it's best to avoid them when possible, especially in the case of children.
So, What Should You Do?
The most important step to take is to feed your family lots of fruits and vegetables. "Parents should not feel guilty for feeding their children healthy conventional fruits and vegetables," says Winter. "There is no legitimate evidence demonstrating that consuming conventional fruits and vegetables is of harm but plenty of evidence showing that reducing consumption of fruits and vegetables is harmful." Even EWG includes this statement in their report: "All research agrees on the health benefits of a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and eating fresh produce – organic or conventional, as budget allows – is essential for health."
My two-cents as a dietitian: If you want to choose organic and have room in your budget, go for it. But if you don't have the money (or simply don't want to buy organic) eat lots of fruits and veggies--and skip the stress.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.