The 12 foods with the most pesticides are called the Dirty Dozen and the top 15 foods with the least pesticides are called the Clean 15.
The Environmental Working Group has released its controversial Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists of fresh produce items that consumers should avoid and seek, based on pesticide residue levels.
And although no citrus item makes the dozen, EWG notes that more than 90 percent of citrus fruits had toxic pesticides on them when tested.
Avocados again top the Clean 15 list.
The EWG compiles its annual list by analyzing U.S. Department of Agriculture data “to identify which fresh fruits and vegetables are most and least contaminated with pesticide residues.”
“This year, the USDA’s tests found residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides on nearly 70 percent of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S.,” EWG said in a press release. “Before testing fruits and vegetables, the USDA washes, scrubs, and peels them, as consumers would.”
“Whether organic or conventionally grown, fruits and vegetables are critical components of a healthy diet,” said EWG toxicologist Thomas Galligan, Ph.D. in the release. “We urge consumers who are concerned about their pesticide intake to consider, when possible, purchasing organically grown versions of the foods on EWG’s Dirty Dozen, or conventional produce from our Clean Fifteen.”
EWG says “most pesticide residues the USDA finds fall within government-mandated restrictions. But legal limits aren’t always safe.”
“The EPA’s safety levels, called tolerances, help agency regulators determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. If tolerance levels were set to protect all children eating produce, as EWG believes they should be, more fruits and vegetables would fail to meet them.”
The agricultural industry is addicted to pesticides, and the entire world is paying the price. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that global pesticide use in 2012 amounted to approximately six billion pounds.
The term “pesticide” implies that these chemicals target and kill “pests,” but a better name would be “biocides” — destroyers of life — because they do a lot more than poison pests. They poison insects and pollinators; contaminate soil, water, and air; and can cause harm to farmworkers, agricultural communities, and people who eat produce sprayed with pesticides.
How common is it for the US produce to be contaminated? “Nearly 70% of the fresh produce sold in the US contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides,” according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
In this article, we’re going to review the most and least pesticide-contaminated produce, so you can make an informed decision before making a purchase.
This year, collard and mustard greens join kale on the dirty list, as well as bell peppers and hot peppers for the first time.
Here are the 2021 Dirty Dozen:
This list comes from the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list. These fruits and vegetables are the ones that are most important to get organic if you can.
If you want to avoid exposure to multiple noxious chemicals, including dangerous fumigants that build up in the plant tissue, the fruit, and the soil, the most important food on this list to only buy organic is the strawberry. Most of the fresh strawberries sold in the US come from California.
And data from 2015 revealed that per acre, strawberries receive 60 times more pesticide by weight than corn, which itself is a pesticide-intensive crop.
But it wasn’t just the amount; the variety and toxicity of the chemicals were also problematic. While most crops showed residues of just over two pesticides per sample, strawberries averaged almost eight — with 30% at ten or more. And some of these pesticides, according to the EWG, “are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption, and neurological problems.”
It’s best to choose organic.
If strawberries win the dubious distinction of the highest amount of pesticides, spinach holds the distinction of highest pesticide residues by weight. The biggest culprit in testing was permethrin, a neurotoxin insecticide banned in Europe and linked to ADHD and various neurological impairments in children.
And speaking of bans, let’s talk about DDT for a minute. The pesticide that was banned in the US in 1972 after being indicted for multiple harms in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring was still shockingly found on 40% of spinach sampled by the USDA in 2016. DDT, like many other pesticides, has a nasty ability to persist in the environment — even after almost half a century.
Your best bet, aside from growing your own, is organic spinach, according to CR. The next best is imported frozen spinach, which is lower in pesticides than spinach grown in the US. In any case, always wash spinach well, as pesticide levels were higher in unwashed spinach than the washed spinach tested by the USDA.
3. Kale/Collard/Mustard greens
Given leafy greens like kale’s well-justified popularity as nutritional powerhouses, I’m sad to report that they’re among some of the most contaminated crops in the US. In 2017, the USDA found that almost 60% of non-organic kale samples were contaminated with the herbicide DCPA (marketed as Dacthal), which has been banned in Europe since 2009 because of cancer risks.
And in 2019, 35% of examined samples of collard and mustard greens were also contaminated with Dacthal. DCPA’s main application is to kill crabgrass, which can outcompete edible leafy greens in poor soil conditions. Rather than remedy the soil, farmers are told to keep pouring on the chemicals.
The problem here is that DCPA was identified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA as early as 1995. The data was so alarming, the manufacturer actually petitioned the EPA in 2005 to terminate its use on a variety of crops.
Unfortunately, the ag industry has ignored the science and continues to douse our leafy greens in it. In the US, the only kale, collards, and mustard greens deemed generally free from DCPA are organic varieties.
Named after the divine drink of the Olympian gods, it’s a cruel irony pesticide residue often fouls up these delicious fruits. The USDA found 33 pesticide residues in nectarine samples, including five known or probable carcinogens, 17 suspected hormone disruptors, and six developmental or reproductive toxins.
Oh, and if that’s not bad enough, they were also found to contain 10 chemicals toxic to honeybees, our most important and endangered pollinators.
The good news is, organic nectarines are low in pesticides, according to CR’s data.
At first blush, apples look pretty good. They’re treated with fewer pesticides than many other crops, averaging 4.4 pesticide residues per sample. And they aren’t heavily treated while growing. The problem occurs after harvest when conventional apples are bathed in a chemical named diphenylamine, which keeps the skins pretty while the apples are in cold storage.
American regulators decided that diphenylamine didn’t pose any unacceptable risks — in contrast to European officials, who were swayed by evidence that by-products of diphenylamine may contribute to cancers of the stomach and esophagus. For this reason, American-grown conventional apples are banned in Europe.
Some apples have also been genetically modified for cosmetic rather than functional reasons. Arctic apples, for example, are spliced with genes that prevent the flesh from browning when cut open. (To avoid this dreaded condition, you can either eat them once cut, soak in diluted lemon juice or just be OK with apples that turn brown when their cut skin is exposed to the air.)
Your best bets when it comes to apples are homegrown (a well-tended apple tree can last up to five generations), or organic varieties.
EWG tells us that non-organic grapes contain loads of pesticide residues, including eight cancer causers, 17 suspected hormone disruptors, 10 neurotoxins, and four developmental or reproductive toxins. Plus 19 that are toxic to honeybees.
The only good thing you can say about non-organic grapes is that they’re better than non-organic raisins. According to EWG, almost 100% of samples of non-organic raisins contained residues from two or more pesticides.
In a discrepancy that I can’t quite resolve, CR rates domestic non-organic grapes as very good, and imported ones as good. I hope they’ll publish the data behind their findings, as well as details of their methodology, so the public will be able to make grape decisions with more confidence. To be safe, my recommendation is to buy organic grapes and raisins.
Sadly, wines — and vinegar, like red wine or balsamic — are also subject to potentially harmful doses of pesticides. Roundup is commonly used in non-organic vineyards, at more than a pound and a half per acre, as are various other fumigants, herbicides, and nematicides (killers of microscopic critters called nematodes, the problematic varieties of which flourish in poor soil).
Residues found in wine rival those found in raw grapes, indicating that the winemaking process isn’t protective. These are good reasons to opt for wines made from organically grown grapes if you choose to drink wine at all.
Almost half of the cherries sampled by the USDA contained residues of bifenthrin, a neurotoxin that kills insects by paralysis. It’s moderately harmful to mammals (including humans) and wreaks absolute havoc on fish and their marine ecosystems. It also appears to cause cancer in mice, but not rats, so we really don’t know what that says about carcinogenesis in humans.
But add to this nasty chemical the residues of 42 others found on cherries by USDA testing, and you have a recipe for individual and environmental concern.
Aside from homegrown (there are many varieties of cherry trees and bushes that produce delicious fruit you’ll never find in a supermarket), your best bet here is frozen, domestic organic cherries.
Even imported organic cherries were rated only “fair” by CR, based on suspicions of inadequate oversight of organic standards by countries such as Turkey and China. Fresh organic cherries could be a solid choice too — though they vary by the grower.
EWG and CR agree that fresh, non-organic peaches are among the dirtiest crops in the US. Samples examined by the USDA found the residues of 62 separate pesticides, including a whopping 24 suspected hormone disruptors and a dozen neurotoxins.
If possible, stick to organic peaches. CR also reported that non-organic canned peaches are low in pesticides and received an “excellent” rating. While we don’t typically recommend canned fruit if you do choose to buy canned organic peaches, look for those packed in organic fruit juice instead of sugar-water or syrup.
Four out of 10 samples of non-organic pears were found to have residues of pyrimethanil, a fungicide shown to cause underdevelopment of ovaries and interference in normal sexual differentiation in tree frogs. In other animal tests, pyrimethanil caused damage to livers, kidneys, and thyroid glands. The USDA classifies it as a Group C (potential) carcinogen.
A quarter of pear samples were also contaminated with o-Phenylphenol, a mold growth retardant whose jocular rhyming name belies its nasty effects: it’s a known carcinogen, suspected hormone disruptor, and developmental toxin.
When buying fresh pears, choose organic if possible. Both domestic and imported samples were rated “excellent” by CR.
10. Bell and Hot Peppers
Back on the list for the first time in 10 years were both bell and hot peppers. Overall, peppers had the most types of pesticides detected — a whopping 115 in total. Two pesticides, in particular, showed up more often than not among tested pepper samples.
Acephate and chlorpyrifos are organophosphate insecticides that attack the acetylcholinesterase enzyme in insects and mammals. This enzyme helps convert the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, into acetic acid and choline compounds in the body.
Insecticides like acephate and chlorpyrifos are especially harmful to children’s developing brains and can cause nervous system problems and other unpleasant side effects among humans. Although they’re banned in the EU, the US has not taken steps towards an outright ban on these toxic chemicals, which sadly still end up in our food supply.
To avoid potential exposure to any of 115 pesticides, bell and hot peppers are foods you’ll want to purchase organic as much as possible — or grow your own.
Celery doesn’t come with the worst pesticides out there but contains quite a few of them. According to the USDA, 100% of samples had residues of chlorantraniliprole, which appears to have mild effects on humans but can be lethal to honeybees. And samples also contained spinosad, which kills mosquito larvae and harms bees.
Your best celery options include growing your own or purchasing domestic or imported organic celery.
The good news about tomatoes is that, even though they contain many different kinds of pesticide residues (69 in cherry tomatoes, and 35 in regular ones), the chance of you finding a tomato with a specific pesticide is smaller than the crops mentioned so far.
The most common pesticide found in cherry tomatoes, bifenthrin, was in under one-quarter of samples. And the most frequently found pesticide in regular tomatoes, endosulfan II was present in just 17% of tested samples. Even so, choose organic when you can.
Both fresh and canned organic tomatoes appear to be fine. And good news for all aspiring home gardeners — tomatoes are one of the easiest crops to grow. A single cherry tomato plant grown in a container on a patio can provide you and your family with a season’s worth of salad additions.
With hundreds of hybrids and heirloom varieties, you’re likely to find tomatoes that fit your gardening space and your taste buds.
What is the Clean 15
The Clean Fifteen is a list of fruits and vegetables that contain the lowest concentration of pesticides in the U.S., even when they are grown with pesticides (aka conventionally).
Here are the items on the Clean 15:
Now that you’ve made it through the scary part of this article, it’s time to reward yourself by discovering the 15 least pesticide-contaminated clean 15.
Whew! Avocados were one of the cleanest conventionally grown produce items tested. Fewer than two percent of samples showed any detectable pesticide residue. And the single pesticide found, imiprothrin, appears fairly benign in toxicity studies.
That said, while pesticides don’t make it into the thick-skinned avocado fruit, the pervasive spraying in the Mexican avocado industry is causing environmental damage and creating public health problems.
Local residents who rely on lake water that receives runoff from the avocado fields exhibit high levels of liver and kidney problems. So if you can afford organic or US-grown avocados, that may be the most socially responsible option.
2. Sweet Corn
Another hyper-clean crop, sweet corn, also contained pesticide residue in fewer than one of 50 samples. And frozen corn received a perfect score — no residues were found in any samples. You do want to make sure to avoid GMO sweet corn, however.
While the vast majority of GMO corn is from varieties for feed, oil, and grain, the agronomists at Monsanto have introduced GMO sweet corn into the market.
If you want to be sure to steer clear of GMOs you may still want to opt for organic (or check the variety with the grower or your market produce buyer to ensure that it’s non-GMO). Other than that, pretty much any corn — organic, non-organic, fresh, or frozen — seems to be free of pesticides.
The thick skins of pineapples appear to create an effective barrier to most pesticides. Of the six chemicals found in samples, the most common, triadimefon, appeared just under five percent of the time.
Be sure to avoid the GMO “pink pineapple,” which is made by Del Monte. The manufacturer proudly touts the Franken-fruit as “pinker and sweeter” than a regular pineapple. Which makes me wonder, was the lack of pinkness and existing level of pineapple sweetness such a pressing problem?
Aside from saying no to pink, it seems that you’re fine with any domestic pineapple: organic or not; fresh or frozen.
Regular onions (that is, not green onions or scallions) are pretty clean, whether organic or not. Despite being bombarded with a wide variety of pesticides, the majority of them are in the outer layers and skin, which are typically removed as you peel the onion.
So as long as you peel your onions properly, your pesticide exposure will be minimal. You can still choose organic onions to protect farmworkers. But for your own consumption, any domestic onions that you peel seem fine.
Papayas contain few pesticide residues. With papayas, you may want to pay attention to whether they’re GMO. Most papayas grown in the US are from Hawaii. And unfortunately for fans of mother nature, 75% of these are GMO.
Originally, GMO papayas were introduced on The Big Island to combat a virus that attacked the trees. When consumers began worrying about the safety of GMOs and started demanding non-GMO papayas, growers discovered that the GMO strains had cross-pollinated with and contaminated the non-GMO strains.
So if you want non-GMO papayas, stick to organic, choose known non-GMO varieties, such as Solo, or purchase imported fruit. Mexican papayas, for example, often don’t taste as sweet as the Hawaiian varieties, but are usually more affordable — and they are not GMO.
6. Sweet Peas (frozen)
Even if you’re not going to use them exclusively as an icepack, you can feel safe eating just about any variety of frozen peas: organic and non-organic; domestic and imported. Of the seven pesticides found on frozen peas, only one, dimethoate, appears in more than four percent of samples.
And even with that one, which attacks insects’ nervous systems and kills them on contact, it was only found in one out of eight samples, as it tends to degrade rapidly once applied.
Eggplant parm and baba ghanouj lovers can breathe a sigh of relief: Your favorite vegetable is reasonably safe, at least if grown in the US — whether organic or not. The two most commonly found pesticides, endosulfan sulfate and endosulfan II (there’s that video game series again), are relatively harmless (at least compared to many others on our food).
The more worrying chemicals, such as carbaryl and methomyl, occur in only about one to two percent of samples tested.
Those happy green spears that have such an interesting effect on our pee are pretty clean even when conventional. Of the nine pesticides found, the really nasty ones appear on less than one percent of samples tested. Any domestic asparagus is a fine choice. And frozen is also not a problem.
When you choose non-organic broccoli, you’re probably not putting your family at risk. With the exception of DCPA, found in 36% of samples, and chlorpyrifos, appearing 8% of the time, the seven pesticides that comprise the lion’s share in terms of detectable residue are considered reasonably safe for humans.
Again, it’s a different story for honeybees and the environment, so if you can manage organic, it’s almost always the best option.
If you can’t find organic broccoli, or justify the price difference, you’re probably fine choosing any broccoli you can find from just about anywhere in the world. Fresh or frozen, organic or non-organic — you and your family won’t be consuming a lot of harmful stuff.
It’s good to know that despite non-organic kale’s dreadful rating as a source of pesticides, some members of the cruciferous clan can still put on a good show without organic certification. Like cauliflower and broccoli, cabbage fits this bill.
Both domestic and imported cabbage are deemed acceptable.
Despite being the nickname for folks from New Zealand, this fruit is grown in the US as well. If your main concern is your own health, domestic kiwis are relatively safe. The problem is, non-organic kiwis receive pesticide treatments that can bring harm to the farmworkers whose hands bring us our food.
For them, in addition to acute illness immediately following exposure, pesticides are also linked to high levels of chronic disease. They can also poison groundwater and injure non-human animal species.
So your best bet, all around, is to choose organic kiwis if you can. But you won’t encounter significant pesticide exposure if you eat a conventionally grown kiwi.
Cauliflower, a nutritional powerhouse despite its pale hue, is another one of those awesome veggies that doesn’t retain much by way of pesticides. The two most commonly found chemicals aren’t great for honeybees, which is a good reason to still choose organic if you can swing it.
But by and large, non-organic cauliflower is a perfectly fine option.
By far, the most common pesticide used on mushrooms, thiabendazole, is also a pharmaceutical routinely prescribed for humans to treat pinworm and hookworm infections, among others. I’m not suggesting going on a mushroom binge if you get diagnosed with a worm infection — just letting you know that, as far as pesticides go, it’s not considered an especially harmful substance (unless you happen to be a pinworm!).
Mushrooms are kind of fun to grow, especially if you start with a kit that has everything you need. While organic is always best, you can pretty safely choose any fresh domestic mushroom, organic or not.
14. Honeydew Melon
Honeydew producers, at least in California, have largely committed to reduced and strategic pesticide use in a system known as IPM (integrated pest management).
This method sometimes includes pesticides, but only quite judiciously, and features many farming practices that reduce pest pressure, such as planting in raised beds to improve drainage and minimize root diseases, killing weeds with flame rather than chemicals, and replacing sprinklers with drip irrigation.
Out of the 17 pesticides found in cantaloupes, the five most common are considered benign for human use (although three of them are moderately too highly toxic to honeybees). Cantaloupes are typically less heavily sprayed than many other crops; the average coverage receives less than 2/5 of a pound of pesticides per acre.
The agricultural industry is addicted to pesticides, and the entire world is paying the price. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that global pesticide use in 2012 amounted to approximately six billion pounds. The term “pesticide” implies that these chemicals target and kill “pests,” but a better name would be “biocides” — destroyers of life — because they do a lot more than poison pests.
How common is it for US produce to be contaminated? “Nearly 70% of the fresh produce sold in the US contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides,” according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Make an informed decision before making a purchase.
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Please let us know in the comments below:
- Were you familiar with the Dirty Dozen & Clean 15? What produce (if any) do you always make sure is organic?
- Do you grow anything yourself? If so, what strategies do you use to keep pests from doing damage?
- Did you learn anything surprising in this article? If so, what is it?
Information on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. We encourage you to do your own research. Seek the advice of a medical professional before making any changes to your lifestyle or diet.
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