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Each spring, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases its annual “Dirty Dozen” list. This list, along with its counterpart, the “Clean Fifteen”, takes hold of media headlines and causes a lot of confusion for consumers regarding decisions about what’s safe to eat.
To ensure you have the facts, we’ve put together a cheat sheet, which covers everything you need to know about both the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. You’re going to want to keep these key tips in mind as you grocery shop!
What is the Dirty Dozen?
Back in 2004, the EWG began releasing the Dirty Dozen list in an effort to help guide consumers in making the best choices for their health. While the list is rooted in a mission to inform the public on a topic that many find confusing – pesticides and produce – what scientists have found is that lists like this end up causing more confusion than confidence.
You see, the Dirty Dozen list identifies which fruits and vegetables have been found to contain the highest trace levels of pesticide residue, according to data obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, what isn’t presented to the public in mainstream media is the methodology that the EWG uses to identify these lists.
Exploring the EWG’s methodology for the Dirty Dozen list
According to Dr. Carl Winter, a toxicologist from the University of California, Davis, while the EWG uses data presented from the USDA to identify the produce listed on the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, the organization neglects to assess or present the actual risk consumers face when consuming produce.
Dr. Winter goes on to share that, “The EWG focuses upon the presence (or absence) of pesticide residues in its methodology and public statements rather than on the actual amounts of pesticides detected, which are extremely low. To accurately assess consumer risks from pesticides, one needs to consider three major factors: 1) the amount of residue on the foods, 2) the amount of food consumed, and 3) the toxicity of the pesticides.”
While the EWG’s prior 2021 report methodology posted online indicates the organization takes into account the average amount of pesticides found, measured in parts per million, it neglects to indicate the amount a person would have to consume, as well as the toxicity of the pesticides reported.
It’s interesting to note, however, that while the EWG notes measuring the pesticide presence in parts per million, according to Tamika Sims, PhD, Senior Director, Food Technology Communications at the International Food Information Council (IFIC), most pesticide residues have dissipated on fruits and vegetables, both organically and conventionally grown, by the time the food reaches consumers. She shares, “Even in the cases where they haven’t, the amount of pesticides on fruits and vegetables is so small that it has to be measured in parts per billion.”
What foods made the 2022 Dirty Dozen list?
While no “new” foods popped up on the 2022 list when compared to the 2021 list, you’ll notice below when comparing the EWG report from 2021 that bell and hot peppers moved three spots higher in the list, ranking them as number seven in 2022’s list.
|2022 Dirty Dozen list||2021 Dirty Dozen list|
|Kale, collard greens and mustard greens||Kale, collard greens and mustard greens|
|Bell and hot peppers||Cherries|
|Pears||Bell and hot peppers|
Since the EWG does not indicate servings consumers would have to consume in order to reach a level of pesticide exposure that would present harm to humans, let’s dive into this a bit further.
How many servings of Dirty Dozen foods would you need to consume for it to pose health risks?
To tackle this challenging topic, researchers in partnership with the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), a non-profit organization funded by both organic and conventional farmers, set out to create a calculator that would put the issue of pesticide residues in perspective. And it’s a great tool to understand how small the residues found on fruits and vegetables actually are.
Toxicologists at the University of California, Riverside, used USDA data from the 2008 to 2014 collection samples for 19 different produce items. The highest percentage found of pesticides was used for analysis, while the serving sizes for men, women, teens and children were identified using two reports from the USDA, including the Foods Commonly Eaten in the U.S. and USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference.
As you can see below, using the Pesticide Residue Calculator for adult men and women, one would have to eat an unfathomable level PER DAY of the recent 2022 Dirty Dozen produce items to at all come close to a risk.
Daily servings that would pose potential health concerns
|2022 Dirty Dozen food||Adult male||Adult female|
|Kale, collard greens and mustard greens||26,061 (kale)||18,611 (kale)|
|Bell and hot peppers||275||196|
Source: AFF Pesticide Residue Calculator
Dr. Taylor Wallace, Principal & CEO at Think Healthy Group and a professor in the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at George Mason University, reminds consumers that while strawberries, kale and spinach regularly top the list, the truth is that pesticide residue on produce is well below (often 1000 times lower) the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) current guidelines, which experts consider to be safe for human consumption.
What is the Clean Fifteen?
In addition to the Dirty Dozen list, the EWG also creates a list known as the Clean Fifteen. Foods on this list have been shown to have the smallest detectable levels of pesticides when using the same methodology as described above for the Dirty Dozen list.
Noteworthy is the fact that many of the items you’ll see listed below have skin or outer coverings that are removed before the sample area is tested.
What foods made the 2022 Clean Fifteen list?
As you can see, changes from the 2021 to 2022 Clean Fifteen list include the addition of cantaloupe and mangoes, while broccoli and cauliflower exited the list.
|2022 Clean Fifteen||2021 Clean Fifteen|
|Sweet corn||Sweet corn|
|Sweet peas (frozen)||Sweet peas (frozen)|
While the Clean Fifteen list doesn’t generate as much buzz as the Dirty Dozen, we want you to have the facts of this list at your fingertips as well.
Wait. Isn’t pesticide exposure toxic at any level?
Trust me when I say I completely understand your concern if you’re thinking about this question. But, in order to understand how toxins get stored in your body, leading to the “toxic” concern regarding pesticides on produce, we have to examine the complexities of how our bodies become exposed to toxins – and if the benefits outweigh the risks.
Every day our body is exposed to environmental toxins from the air we breathe, the personal care items we use on our bodies, the foods we eat, how we prepare our foods and more common (and necessary) activities. Unless you quite literally are living in a bubble, there’s no way to escape these exposures. But there are certainly ways to minimize risks and promote your health.
For instance, the FDA recommends washing your produce under cool, running water and removing the outer leaves of leafy produce. These are two convenient and affordable ways to minimize any pesticide residues left on your produce. Plus, eating fruits and vegetables, like those listed on the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, provide important antioxidants that help rid your body of the free radicals (or toxins) that are present already in your body from the other exposures.
According to NJ-based dietitian and diabetes expert Erin Palinski-Wade, RD CDCES and author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet, “Though chemicals from pesticide exposure may be stored in the body’s fat cells and act as endocrine-disruptors, the impact on health is dose dependent. Eating the recommended number of fruits and vegetables daily should not increase pesticide exposure to toxic levels. And the antioxidants contained in this produce along with the plant compounds and fibers that help support a healthy microbiome outweigh the potential negative sides of eating conventionally grown produce.”
Dr. Sims agrees, noting that some research shows that while ingestion of lipophilic (“fat soluble”) pesticide residues has shown some accumulation within fat cells, the accumulation is accompanied by enzymatic reactions that lead to the substance being released.
Hormone health expert Melissa Groves Azzaro, RDN, commonly known as The Hormone Dietitian and author of A Balanced Approach to PCOS, shares that during specific life stages (i.e. those who are trying to conceive, pregnant or struggling with diagnosed hormone conditions), minimizing exposures to endocrine-disrupting chemicals, like pesticides, where and when you can is beneficial.
Azzaro shares, “We know that pesticide exposure has negative impacts on hormone health and fertility and that there are critical windows of exposure that can have long-reaching impacts on health, with one of the most important critical windows being pregnancy and in utero exposure to substances. We also have some evidence suggesting that endocrine disrupting chemical levels are higher in people with diagnosed hormone-driven conditions like PCOS and endometriosis.”
While she doesn’t think lists like the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen should be what consumers live and die by, understanding that many people don’t have the grocery budget to support doing so – or may not have access to organic produce where they live – Azzaro does find the lists helpful to guide market and budget decisions for those individuals she counsels. “I do think it’s important to buy the best quality food we can afford on our current grocery budgets but to never feel pressured that we HAVE to eat organic if we want to have balanced hormones and a healthy pregnancy.”
So, is organic better than conventional produce?
Nutritionally speaking, there is little to no difference in the nutrient composition of a carrot grown on an organic versus conventional farm. Dr. Sims shares, “Whether you choose organic or conventional produce, you are eating a safe and healthy way to access fruits and vegetables. Both conventionally grown and organic produce safely use pesticides to protect crops from pests. The list of pesticides that can be used for organic produce is different from conventional, but they are all made up of federally regulated compounds that are designed to kill or repel insects and other pests. This means that these substances are designed to rid foods of pests, but are also intended to be a part of our food supply chain system to ultimately yield food we can safely consume after harvesting.”
Dr. Wallace has similar feelings, noting consumers may actually be quite shocked to discover that there are actually over 20 chemicals commonly used on organic produce. He writes, “The actual volume of pesticides used on organic farms is not monitored by the federal government, as it is on conventional farms. According to the National Center for Food and Agriculture Policy, the most commonly used organic fungicides, copper and sulfur, are applied at a rate of 4 and 34 pounds per acre. This data is from 1971, since again usage is currently not monitored on organic farms. Less toxic synthetic fungicides used in conventional agriculture are applied at a rate of about 1.6 pounds per acre. The common weed-killer, glyphosate (i.e., Roundup) is applied at about 0.75 pounds per acre and has been demonstrated to be ~5,000 times less toxic than table salt.”
To reassure consumers, Dr. Sims adds that the chemicals used in pesticides are regulated by the EPA, the USDA and the FDA. These agencies monitor the types and amounts of pesticides used on all crops. Based on scientific evidence, these agencies have deemed the use of pesticides to be safe and determined that the residues that remain on produce, if any, do not cause adverse health effects.
She adds, “Additionally, it is worth underscoring that the agencies are not just taking inventory on the residues that may or not be present on produce. They are also working to ensure that human exposure to these foods does not yield short or long-term adverse health impacts. Part of the human health risk assessment is the work EPA does to regulate the production and use of pesticides as it relates to the health of the people meant to consume the fruit and vegetables.”
Don’t let the Dirty Dozen scare you away from fresh produce
Less than one out of 10 Americans are meeting the recommended intakes of produce per day. Peer-reviewed research from 2016 in Nutrition Today found that misleading messaging perpetuated in the Dirty Dozen list, which described certain produce items as having “higher” pesticide residues, resulted in low-income consumers stating they would be less likely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organically or conventionally grown.
Palinski-Wade shares she has seen this fear firsthand, with clients who take information they see in the media when lists like this surface and reduce overall produce intake out of fear of pesticides when they cannot afford organic. She reminds those clients that the health consequences of eating little to no produce far outweigh any potential concerns of a small amount of pesticide residue.
While it’s without question that you need to make informed choices about what you’re putting in your body and feeding your family, especially during critical life stages, you must remember the powerful role media can play in misrepresenting the facts. Azzaro shares, “The bottom line is that most people are not eating nearly enough fruits and vegetables and conventional produce provides people with many essential nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber. I recommend eating fruits and vegetables in whatever way that fits your budget – whether that be fresh, conventional, organic, local, home-grown, frozen or canned.”
At the end of the day, you’ll find countless leading health authorities reminding you of that same message: Choose more produce in whatever form you can afford, be it conventionally or organically grown.
Disclosure: The author serves in an advisory role to the non-profit organization, AFF, mentioned in this article. No financial incentives were provided and all facts shared and quotes provided are without conflicts.