April 4, 2019
Ellie Burbidge, BS, RDN, CD
You’ve probably heard or read information about the “dirty dozen” produce list. As a dietitian, I think it is important that consumers care about how their food is grown, processed, and where it comes from. I definitely think it is important to understand how to use nutrition to benefit lifelong health. But, I have a problem with the “dirty dozen” list. This list sparks fear and anxiety among many consumers and unfortunately leads many people to avoid produce all together. Remember how I always say that if any nutrition source is using fear to motivate or present nutrition then that should be a red flag that sometimes is not entirely right? Well, it is the same case here. Overall, things are blown way out of proportion in the media.
The dirty dozen list gives us some facts, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it also doesn’t give you the whole picture. A lot of people who aren’t qualified to be interpreting this data (let alone provide nutrition recommendations) use this information for two reasons. One, it is trendy, and trendy topics bring in engagement and views which brings in money! Two, these types of people know that others will click on an article or read a post about something concerning like “certain produce you are eating is killing you”. Luckily, you can use your friendly dietitian to help you navigate how to interpret the dirty dozen and what you should do to stay healthy!
Once a year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) (a non-profit organization) releases its annual “dirty dozen” list which is a list of produce that they believe contain the highest amount of pesticide residue. Here is the list for this year:
If you are worried because you are buying most of the items on this list you’re not alone. This list contains a lot of the affordable produce we get in the United States!
Here is why I wouldn’t let the “dirty dozen” list scare you.
What this list does is cause fear and anxiety of consuming these foods. I get it, I don’t want to feed myself or my family anything that is inherently dangerous either! The problem is that most people translate “pesticide use” to equal “poison” for your body. Let me tell you this issue is very complicated and isn’t that “black and white.” This fearful mentality is one reason why the organic vs. conventional debate continues to end in heated discussions and lively debates. So, before we continue on let’s stop and talk about what you need to know about pesticides and organic vs. conventional produce! Then we will jump into specifics about the “Dirty Dozen” list that paints the whole, accurate picture.
Are Pesticides Dangerous?
According to toxicology experts, neither conventional nor organic pesticides pose any real health concern. Research has shown that organic produce tends to be lower in pesticide residue levels compared to conventionally grown produce. But, the EPA has conducted research stating that while organic foods have less food pesticide exposure than conventionally grown foods, both conventionally grown and organic food had pesticide exposures within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) established safety limits.
In fact, most conventionally grown produce have low enough pesticide residue levels that most conventionally grown produce meets the residue level requirement that the USDA has set for organic produce.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows organic produce to contain up to 5% of EPA tolerance levels of pesticide residue levels. Most conventionally grown produce have pesticide residues within the acceptable range for organically grown produce.
As stated by Vicki Retelny, a fellow registered dietitian, “A recent review of the residue sampling data published in Forbes reveals that there are low pesticide residues on all fruits and vegetables – organic and conventional. A deeper dive into the actual numbers revealed some interesting things:
76% of all residue detected on conventional apples and strawberries were so low that they met the standard for residue levels under that organic label
80% of the detected residues on conventional spinach met organic requirements”
So, is conventionally grown produce filled with pesticides? No. The truth is that most organic and conventionally grown produce contain really low levels of pesticide residue levels.
It is important to point out that the food grown in the United States is among some of the safest food in the world. Pesticide use has evolved and improved today so that farmers can target specific bugs that are killing crops which reduces pesticide use and prevents the use of unnecessary pesticides on crops. The food that makes it to our stores has met very specific regulations regarding pesticide use and residue levels to keep us safe.
Toxicologists at the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure Program concluded that an adult woman would have to eat 18,615 servings of kale in one day before they would see any health effects from pesticide residues (a male would have to eat 26,061 servings, a teenager 14,982 servings, a child 7,746 servings per day). Click here to learn more about this analysis. Overall this shows us that typical levels of pesticides consumed are way lower than needed to pose any health risk.
To reiterate this point, Dr. Carl Winter, a toxicologist and expert in pesticide residues states that Americans’ exposure to pesticides from food are at levels at least 10,000 times lower than levels given to laboratory animals everyday throughout their lifetimes and even then, animals don’t show any toxicological effects.
Is Organic Produce More Nutritious than Conventionally Grown Produce?
Overall, the research examining whether organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce has mixed results. This means that some research has shown significant nutrition differences among the two while others have not. This is probably due to the many factors that contribute to nutrition composition of food and our health status (i.e. differences in soil, genetics and lifestyle factors, etc.) Overall, there isn’t conclusive evidence on whether organic produce is more nutritious than conventionally grown produce. This topic is also complex and isn’t black-and-white”.
Here is what we know:
Some studies show that organic produce does contain higher amounts of phosphorus, Vitamin C, and phytochemicals and that is tends to be lower in nitrogen and protein content.
Some studies show that organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy contain higher levels of omega-3 fats. However, the difference between the two is so small it isn’t likely to make a significant difference in overall health.
Should You Buy Organic Produce Over Conventional Produce?
It is important to point out here that supporting organically grown produce does have benefits! Organic farming methods can increase and build up soil health which increases the nutrients in our soil that are available to our produce during growth . Organic farming methods use less energy, produce less greenhouse gas emissions, and creates healthier soils. Overall, organic farming methods are better for our environment and the future health of the soil that we grow our produce and crops in compared to conventional farming methods.
So, do I think it is beneficial to support local, organic farming methods whenever possible? Yes! But it isn’t because of the pesticide issue or because organic foods are significantly healthier than conventional foods.
What If I Can’t Afford to Buy Organic Foods?
That’s okay! You can still buy conventionally grown produce and live a perfectly healthy life! There isn’t consistent evidence that has led experts to believe consuming conventional produce will harm you or your family. But, not consuming enough produce has been consistently shown to have negative health consequences in both children and adults. Additionally, there has been extensive research showing the health benefits of consuming enough fruits and vegetables. Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables helps reduce your risk for developing cancer, obesity, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and more.
One peer-reviewed analysis done in 2012 stated that ~20,000 cancer cases could have been prevented every year if half of Americans ate one or more serving of conventional fruits and vegetables per day.
If you are limited on budget but would like to support organic farming methods, focus on buying organic fruits and vegetables first. This will give you the most “bang for your buck” as far as nutritional benefits. Definitely skip the expensive, highly processed organic foods which using that food marketing label to entice you to buy their (at times unhealthy) product.
Now, back to the Dirty Dozen List…..
Is the “Dirty Dozen” List a Credible Resource that Qualified Health Professionals Recommend?
Like I said earlier, I believe being interested in knowing how your food is grown, processed, etc. is important but, No, I don’t believe the “dirty dozen” list is the best and most credible nutrition resource for you. I think it creates more fear and anxiety and steers people away from eating produce. Overall, I think that this resource is misleading for consumers. But, let’s see what other credible health professionals, have to say about the “dirty dozen” list….
Dr. Carl Winter, a toxicologist at the University of California, Davis had the following to say about the EWG’s dirty dozen list, “….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. The methodology used by EWG ignores all three.” This is an example of how a presentation of one fact isn’t necessarily the whole picture or an accurate representation of reality. In other words, you have to be careful who you trust for nutrition advice!
According to Jack Housenger, the director of the Office of Pesticide Programs at the EPA, “The EPA has reviewed the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list on pesticide residues in food and has concluded that the rate of violations of pesticide maximum legal residue limits is very small. That confirms government data showing that food in the marketplace rarely violates the EPA’s limits for pesticide residues and confirms our analysis that the food supply is safe.”
A study done in Journal of Toxicology looked into the EWG’s methods and found that the pesticides the EWG looks for pose “negligible risk” for consumers and that swapping foods for organic in these foods therefore doesn’t provide much benefit against reduced consumer risk related to pesticide exposure levels.
Should I stop eating the produce on the “dirty-dozen” list?
No. Whether you choose to buy organic or conventional produce is totally your choice. You can be healthy regardless of your choice.
To reduce pesticide residue on your produce follow these tips from the FDA:
Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing fresh produce to prevent the spread of bacteria
Cut away any damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating.
Wash produce with large amounts of cold or warm running tap water and scrub with a brush when appropriate. There’s no need to use soap or a produce wash.
Wash produce before you peel it so dirt and bacteria aren’t transferred from the knife onto the fruit or vegetable.
Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present.
Throw away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables such as lettuce and cabbage.
Trim the fat from meat and the fat and skin from poultry and fish. Residues of some pesticides concentrate in animal fat.
Eat your produce! For most Americans this means eat more produce. Whether you choose to buy organic or conventional produce is a personal choice, but don’t let the fear of pesticides steer you away from eating produce – whether it’s organic or conventionally grown. Eating produce helps us promote lifelong health by reducing our risk for chronic illness and disease!
1. Environmental Working Group. Dirty Dozen: EWG’s 2019 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. www.ewg.org. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php. Retrieved April 4, 2019.
2. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, Bavinger JC, Pearson M, Eschbach PJ, et al. Are Organic Foods Safer or Healthier Than Conventional Alternatives?: A Systematic Review. Ann Intern Med. ;157:348–366. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-157-5-201209040-00007.
3. Barański M, Srednicka-Tober D, Volakakis N, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Br J Nutr. 2014;112(5):794-811.
4. Brandt K, Leifert C, Sanderson R, Seal CJ. Agroecosystem management and nutritional quality of plant foods: the case of organic fruits and vegetables. Crit Rev Plant Sci. 2011;30(1-2):177-197.
5. McCulloch M. Organic vs Conventional: Which Is Better? Todays Dietitian. 2015;17(4):40. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/040715p40.shtml
6. Reiss R, Johnston J, Tucker K, DeSasso JM, Keen CL. Estimation of cancer risks and benefits associated with a potential increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. Food Chem Toxicol. 2012:50;4421–4427. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fct.2012.08.055.
7. Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary exposure to pesticide residues from commodities alleged to contain the highest contamination levels. J Toxicol. 2011;2011:589674. doi:10.1155/2011/589674
8. Dennett C. Organic Milk and Meat – Are They Healthier than their Conventional Counterparts? Today’s Dietitian. 2016:18(6);28. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0616p28.shtml