Cherries came in eighth this year on the list of the 12 most contaminated foods, with peaches, pears, celery and tomatoes rounding out the list.
But don’t stop eating these foods, which are full of the vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants needed to battle chronic disease, experts say.
“If the things you love to eat are on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list, we recommend buying organic versions when you can,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at the EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.
“Several peer-reviewed studies and clinical trials have looked at what happens when people switch to a fully organic diet,” she said. “Concentrations and measurements of pesticides decrease very rapidly.”
Consumers can also consult EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” — a list of produce with the least amount of pesticides. Nearly 70% of the fruits and veggies on the list had no detectable pesticide residues, while just under 5% had residues of two or more pesticides, the report said.
Avocados had the lowest levels of pesticides among the 46 foods tested, followed by sweet corn, pineapple, onions and papaya.
The USDA does not sample all 46 foods each year, so EWG pulls results from the most recent testing period. Strawberries, for example, have not been tested by the USDA since 2016, Temkin said,
Testing found the highest level of multiple pesticides — 103 — on samples of the heart-healthy trio of kale, collards and mustard greens, followed by 101 different pesticides on hot and bell peppers. In general, “spinach samples had 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight as any other crop tested,” the report said.
Being exposed to multiple pesticides, even at low levels, is “supra-additive,” with each pesticide having more of a health impact than it might in isolation, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone, who was not involved in the report.
Health risks of pesticides
Chlorpyrifos contains an enzyme “which leads to neurotoxicity, and has also been associated with potential neurodevelopmental effects in children,” the EPA said.
A large number of pesticides also affect the endocrine system in developing fetuses, which can interfere with developmental growth, reproduction and metabolism.
The agricultural industry has long complained about the release of the “Dirty Dozen,” saying EWG “willfully” misrepresents USDA data in the report.
“To put it simply, EWG’s attempt to twist the data to create bias … results in growing consumer fear of fruits and vegetables,” said Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, a national trade association that represents the manufacturers, formulators and distributors of pesticides.
“A study found that specifically naming the “Dirty Dozen” resulted in shoppers being less likely to buy ANY vegetables and fruit, not just those named on their list,” Novak said via email.
“The study actually shows that just over half of people surveyed said the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list made them more likely to buy fruits and vegetables,” Temkin said. “Only about 1 in 6 said our report would make them less likely to buy produce.”
Steps consumers can take
Rinse all produce before serving. Don’t use soap, detergent or commercial produce wash — water is the best choice, experts say.
Choose location. Buying food that is purchased directly from a local farmer can reduce the risk of pesticide exposure, experts say.
Buy in season. Prices drop when fruits and vegetables are in season and plentiful. That’s a good time to purchase organic foods in bulk, then freeze or can them for future use, experts suggest.