This following lists probably aren’t ground-breaking news for many of you, but they are the foundation for much of our frugal food thinking so I think it would helpful if to share.
Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes two lists called the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen. They take the results of pesticide testing performed by the USDA Pesticide Testing Program, study the numbers that apply to the fruits and vegetables that consumers are most likely to purchase and then rank that produce based on the odds of being consistently contaminated with the greatest number of pesticides at the highest levels.
Their lists really are a great tool, and my family has aligned some of our shopping habits with their recommendations. However, there are a few things worth mentioning if we’re taking advice from pseudo-government (and possibly government) agencies. (These are the highlights from what they’ve published; read the full versions here and here.)
The testing is done by the USDA Pesticide Testing Program. The analysis is done by the EWG.
It’s important to distinguish between the two. The EWG studies the numbers and gives us a summary; the actual measuring and weighing and calculating is done by the USDA program.
The EWG aims to give us straight facts, unfiltered and unspun, so we can make healthier choices and enjoy a cleaner environment (taken from their site here). The USDA is the same organization that’s behind corn subsidies and a large driving force behind farmers turning to conventional practices (i.e. regularly using hormones and antibiotics) instead of traditional farming, just to stay afloat.
Does it seem strange to you that the organization who appears to be pushing farmers into using pesticides is the same group performing tests on contaminated produce? It does to me, but that’s another discussion…
Not every single fruit and vegetable is tested.
The USDA pulls produce from 11 different states that represent roughly 50% of the nation’s population, so inevitably there will be varieties of fruit and vegetables that aren’t even tested in the first place. Plus the EWG singles out “the fruits and vegetables consumers are more likely to purchase,” which equates to 45 items. Do we even know how many different species of fruits and vegetables exist?! The EWG doesn’t have the funds or resources (or time) to look at every single fruit and vegetable imaginable, but they definitely have reviewed the items listed. Their results are simply the most popular 45 fruits and vegetables that consumers buy, listed in order of greatest pesticide residue to least.
Domestic and imported versions are not studied for every fruit and vegetable.
It could be that one of the varieties wasn’t available for testing at the time, or that the USDA was feeling lazy – I don’t know. But in either case, the EWG notes their findings in the ranking if they did analyze both versions and found a large discrepancy.
The results are based on produce that has been washed.
Many of us would think that the tests would be run on foods that were simply picked from the fields as is, but no. Tests are run on the foods as they would typically be eaten… so bananas are peeled first, then tested. Peaches, apples and grapes are washed, then tested. This means that washing your produce at home won’t decrease the amount of pesticides that the USDA test data shows. However, NOT washing your produce means the risk of ingesting pesticides is even greater.
Despite startling statistics, eating fruits and vegetables is still much better than eating processed junk food.
Some of the “highlights” from the Dirty Dozen list are quite unsettling:
- Every sample of imported nectarines (100%) tested positive for pesticides; following by apples (98%) and imported plums (96%).
- Grapes as a group had 15 pesticides detected on one single sample. Blueberries and strawberries each had 13.
- Bell peppers as a group had 88 different pesticide residues. Cucumbers had 81 and lettuce had 78.
These numbers are very scary, but despite the pesticides, fruits and vegetables will always be a better choice than processed food. Fake food often contains trans fat and high-fructose corn syrup, two of the biggest toxins currently on the market. This doesn’t even mention all the “little” contaminants that are out there. At least produce has hope and we can do our best to eliminate pesticides by growing our gardens, supporting local farmers and their harvest and buying organic whenever possible.
The purpose behind these lists is to strategically purchase your food. Organic food is expensive, so it makes sense to only buy organic when it counts the most. There are a few different ways to approach this.
- Buy more from the Clean Fifteen and less from the Dirty Dozen.
- When buying from the Dirty Dozen, purposely choose organic.
- When buying from the Clean Fifteen, purposely choose conventional (unless organic is less expensive).
- Choose from the Clean Fifteen instead of the Dirty Dozen.
Remember that these lists are just guides – they’re not all inclusive. Just because you don’t see certain foods listed, it doesn’t mean their “safe” with regards to pesticides. In fact artichokes, beets and tangerines are all in season right now yet aren’t on either list (nor were they even tested). Research the foods your family enjoys eating and see where they fall in comparison to the ones that are listed.
Is anyone wondering where the remaining 18 foods went? (Clean 15 + Dirty 12 ≠ Full List of 45) 😉
Here’s the full list of foods tested by the EWG, listed from greatest pesticide content to least.
|1. Apples||26. Green Onions|
|2. Celery||27. Bananas|
|3. Sweet Bell Peppers||28. Honeydew Melon|
|4. Peaches||29. Tomatoes|
|5. Strawberries||30. Cantaloupe (imported)|
|6. Nectarines (imported)||31. Cauliflower|
|7. Grapes||32. Papaya|
|8. Spinach||33. Plums (domestic)|
|9. Lettuce||34. Winter Squash|
|10. Cucumbers||35. Mushrooms|
|11. Blueberries (domestic)||36. Watermelon|
|12. Potatoes||37. Grapefruit|
|13. Kale/Collard Greens||38. Sweet Potatoes|
|14. Cherries||39. Cantaloupe (domestic)|
|15. Hot Peppers||40. Kiwi|
|16. Pears||41. Eggplant|
|17. Nectarines (domestic)||42. Mangoes|
|18. Green Beans||43. Asparagus|
|19. Plums (imported)||44. Sweet Peas (frozen)|
|20. Blueberries (imported)||45. Cabbage|
|21. Carrots||46. Avocado|
|22. Raspberries||47. Pineapples|
|23. Summer Squash||48. Sweet Corn|
|24. Oranges||49. Onions|
Take these lists to-go! This page has the seasonal eating guide AND clean fifteen/dirty dozen list, ready for you to print and stick to a 3×5 index card so you’ll always have an easy reference at hand!
I never see items like SHALLOTS, GINGER, HERBS,.
Are Shallots in the ONION category??
What about Cinnamon, etc.
Thank you for this informative post. You wrote this in 2013. Have the lists and rankings changed at all in the last three years?
Hi Ronda! For the most part, no. Items might have moved up or down the list, but this is still a great list to shop by. 🙂
I noticed you have sweet corn on this list. Most of the corn that we can get in WI is GMO corn. What are your thoughts on GMO’s? – Thanks
Amy, I did a bit of research on GMO’s and the odds of our fresh corn being affected. Here’s what I wrote:
With this, we eat as much fresh corn as we possibly can!!
Many thanks Tiffany! 🙂
Something else you might like to consider is the way the ‘safe level’ of pesticides is decided – each pesticide is looked at as though it was being used alone, without any others being applied to the crop. As you have just demonstrated, this is almost never the case. Also, the amounts are what an average adult could consume safely, children are not considered. I wonder how safe it is when you eat fifteen ‘safe levels’ at once, or feed them to your children?!
You make a good point – safe of one mango is one thing, but times them all over the course of several years? Definitely worth some pondering!
Thank you for the help Tiffany and Jennifer.
Our Aldi store has frozen organic blueberries for $2.88 per 10 oz bag. Much less expensive than those at our other grocery store.
Our Costco carries blueberries as well, but they are not organic. I was wondering if you knew of any source that provides organic blueberries with the bags as big as Costco’s. 🙂
Unfortunately Bonnie, my sources are coming up empty for AFFORDABLE organic blueberries. But I can find plenty of expensive ones, lol! You’re best bet is to stock up when they’re in season and ration them out for the rest of the year. Or enjoy some of the other berries too. 🙂
We eat a lot of frozen blueberries. They are not organic. Where can I buy a large amount of organic blueberries without spending an arm and a leg? Any suggestions?
Have you looked at Costco or Sams? Ours has frozen blueberries in bulk for a reasonable price. Or maybe look into the bags that have mixed berries where you can get blueberries, but also raspberries and blackberries too. Blueberries are tricky to grow (short season, specific climate, etc.) so they tend to be a bit pricier.
Not sure where you live, but we will go to great lengths to pick our own blueberries. We try to find places that do not use pesticides, or at least not many. Not quite organic, but at least I can talk to the owner and ask how they treat and so on.
When we do get them we get tons to last us the year. I hope you can find something!!
Costco carries organic blueberries or wild blueberries that have tested pest idea-free (both frozen)
Costco and they’re sweet.
Linda in Oregon
Oh my goodness. I never thought of the testing being done by the government. And never did the math. Thank you so much for this and the insight. I guess it’s like the bumper sticker says, Question authority. Or better yet, question everything. Things just aren’t always as they seem. I’m still working through the fats and learning so much. Thanks for all you do to help us be healthy and not go broke.
I am trying to print the fruit and vegetable list and the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists, however, when I click on the icon, they do appear on my screen, but there is no printing option that normally appears at the bottom of the screen for PDF’s. Can you email them to me instead?