EWG just released their Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists for the year. Here's what you need to know.

By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Updated April 01, 2020
Credit: Elena Nasledova/Shutterstock

Environmental Working Group (EWG) just issued their annual lists of the "dirtiest" and "cleanest" produce when it comes to pesticide residues. Strawberries top the Dirty Dozen list again, but the group also called out raisins, which they say are the dirtiest produce commodity. Yet not everyone agrees there's reason for worry.

According to EWG, almost 70 percent of the fresh produce sold in the United States has residues of pesticides. More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale had residues of two or more pesticides. They create their annual rankings by analyzing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which test washed, peeled produce to mimic how those foods are typically eaten.

Though EWG's lists only cover fresh fruits and vegetables, they singled out raisins this year because the USDA tested them for the first time since 2007. EWG says that almost every sample of nonorganic raisins (99 percent) had residues of at least two pesticides. Kids eat roughly half of the raisins consumed in the U.S.

For foods on the Dirty Dozen list, EWG recommends choosing organic to limit pesticide exposure.

The Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes

On the flip side, EWG says the produce on their Clean 15 list had little (if any) pesticide residues and low (if any) amounts. Avocados and sweet corn were the "cleanest," with fewer than two percent of samples showing any detectable pesticides.

The Clean 15

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupes
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Cabbage
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwi

Should You Worry?

While some shoppers take the lists as gospel (EWG makes a printable, wallet-sized version of the lists), others say the rankings do more harm than good by needlessly alarming consumers.

It's important to realize that 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 the 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, Ph.D., a specialist in cooperative extension at the University California Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, who published his findings in the Journal Of Toxicology.

As for raisins, detecting pesticide residues is "meaningless in terms of health consequences," says Dr. Winter. "They don't consider the amount of pesticides, the amount of consumption of raisins, or the toxicity of the pesticides."

EWG argues that children are especially vulnerable to pesticides—and that just because legal limits are established doesn't mean they're appropriate for kids or even safe. "Pesticides are toxic by design," they write in their new report. "They are created expressly to kill living organisms ... but many pesticides pose health dangers to people, too—including brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, and hormone disruption."

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 Dr. 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: "Although we believe consumers should be concerned about pesticide residues on the food they eat, the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure."

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), just eat lots of fruits and veggies—and skip the stress.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.


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