If you have angst over whether to buy organic, I understand: Like you, I’ve stood in the aisles of the grocery store weighing the costs and benefits and trying to figure out the smartest thing to do for my family. In the end, I decided to be strategic with my organic dollar. That means I pick and choose which foods I buy organic, based on how frequently we eat them—and in the case of fruits and vegetables, how likely they are to be treated with chemical pesticides. One of the tools I use to make those decisions is the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which includes their “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” lists.
The lists rank fruits and vegetables based on their pesticide contamination. The goal is to help shoppers prioritize their organic purchases and reduce their exposure to pesticides. Why do chemical pesticides matter? These chemicals are designed to kill insects but may have risks to people too—especially kids, whose smaller body size makes them more vulnerable than adults. Children’s weaker immune systems may also mean they can’t eliminate potential toxins as effectively as grown-ups.
Using results from USDA testing of produce samples, EWG ranks fruits and vegetables in categories of “dirty” (the produce with a higher number of pesticide residues) and “clean” (those with the least). In the USDA tests, the produce was all washed or peeled before testing to mimic how they’re served at home (which indicates that residues may still linger after washing and peeling).
Here are EWG’s rankings:
These foods had multiple pesticide residues and a higher concentration of pesticides than other produce.
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Hot peppers*
*Leafy greens and hot peppers were added not because of the amount of pesticide residue but because they are grown using especially harmful pesticides. The EWG recommends that if you eat these foods frequently, to buy organic varieties. If you can’t buy organic, cooking them will help lower the pesticide levels.
These fruits and vegetables have the fewest pesticide residues and low concentrations of pesticides.
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
What about the fruits and veggies in baby food? Baby food tends to have fewer residues that raw fruits and veggies do because it’s cooked, which naturally reduces levels of pesticides. However, some samples of American baby food tested by the USDA (especially applesauce, peaches, and green beans) have been shown to have pesticide levels that exceed the limit set by the European Commission for baby food (the US doesn’t have special limits for baby food). The tests did not reveal significant pesticide residues on baby food carrots or peas.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t follow the EWG lists to the letter. There are items on the Dirty Dozen list that I buy conventional because organic versions aren’t available or are out of my budget. But as with all produce, I wash it well (using my hands to rub it vigorously under running water) to remove some of the pesticide residue. I also vary the kinds of fruits and veggies I buy to avoid getting repeated exposure to certain chemicals. Learn more about pesticides and produce.
Most importantly, I always keep in mind that eating fruits and vegetables is the top priority, regardless of whether the produce is organic. As the EWG says in their report: “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™ to reduce your exposures as much as possible, but eating conventionally grown produce is better than not eating fruits and vegetables at all.” As a dietitian, I say AMEN to that!