April 20, 2018
Red, Ripe Strawberries

Minimizing Pesticide Exposure on a Budget

by Berkeley Wellness  

Here are two things health experts agree on:

1. Americans consume too few fruits and vegetables for optimal health. In fact, more than 75 percent do not meet the USDA’s recommended intake (2.5 cups of vegetables and 2 cups of fruit a day, for a 2,000-calories-a-day diet).

2. The benefits of eating conventionally grown fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential risks of exposure to synthetic pesticide residues. (The undisputed danger of pesticides is to farmworkers who are routinely exposed to high levels of these toxic chemicals.)

In other words, Americans should be eating more fruits and vegetables, no matter how they are grown—conventionally (with synthetic pesticides) or organically (withoutsynthetic pesticides).

Still, it makes sense to minimize exposure to pesticides on produce when possible, especially when it comes to children, who are more vulnerable to pesticide toxicity. The way to do this, of course, is to buy organic—but because these foods cost more, it can be hard, if not impossible, on your budget to feed your family a 100 percent organic diet. You might instead opt to limit organic purchases to those fruits and vegetables that tend to have the most pesticide residues and fill the rest of your grocery basket with conventional foods.

To help you maximize your fruit and vegetable intake while minimizing pesticide exposure, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) ranks conventionally grown fruits and vegetables every year, from most to least contaminated, based on testing by the USDA and the FDA. The 2017 list includes 51 produce items, with the top 12 most-contaminated ones deemed the “Dirty Dozen” and the 15 with the lowest pesticide loads deemed the “Clean Fifteen.”

Strawberries: not so pretty in pink

For yet another year, strawberries topped the Dirty Dozen list, followed by spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes.

Among the more notable findings:

  • Strawberries came in #1 because, according to USDA tests, 99 percent of the samples had detectable residues of at least one pesticide, even after the berries were washed.
  • For the first time, pears joined the Dirty Dozen list, soaring from the 22nd most contaminated type of produce in 2016 to 6th place in 2017. Residues of five or more pesticides were detected on more than half of the 668 samples—most domestically grown—up from 3 percent in 2010. Potatoes also made the list for the first time, coming in 12th. Bumped from the 2017 Dirty Dozen list were cucumbers and cherry tomatoes, which now rank 13th and 14th, respectively, in pesticide load.
  • Spinach jumped from being #8 on the Dirty Dozen list in 2016 to #2 in 2017. Three-quarters of spinach samples contained traces of permethrin, a “neurotoxic bug killer” that is banned in the European Union. Even DDT was detected at low amounts in some spinach samples. Though long banned in the U.S., this pesticide remains in some soil and can be picked up by plants as they grow.
  • Hot peppers did not meet traditional Dirty Dozen criteria but were still singled out because USDA testing found that a portion of them had residues of three chemicals that are highly toxic to the human nervous system—acephate, chlorpyrifos, and oxamyl—at levels high enough to be of concern.

Sweet news for corn

The Clean Fifteen—those with the least residues—are sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, sweet peas (frozen), papayas, asparagus, mangos, eggplant, honeydew melon, kiwi, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and grapefruit.

Of the sweet corn and avocados sampled, only 1 percent had pesticide residues. And no residues at all were detected in more than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions, and cabbage.

According to EWG, “by choosing produce on the Clean Fifteen list, you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while reducing your exposure to pesticides.” Still, “eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables,” its website stresses.

To find out how the produce was tested, read EWG's Executive Summary. You can also get a downloadable version of the full guide to have on your smartphone or tablet for when you go shopping.

Also see The Risks of Pesticide Exposureand Clearing Up Confusion About Organic Food.