Buyer Beware: The 12 Most Pesticide-Contaminated Fruits and Veggies

The Environmental Working Group’s annual ‘Dirty Dozen’ list helps chemical-wary shoppers navigate the produce aisle.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 12, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

With farmers market season upon us, anyone looking for extra incentive to get up early on Saturday to check out the organic offerings from local growers might want to take a gander at the Environmental Working Group’s “Dirty Dozen,” the organization’s annual roundup of conventionally grown produce most likely to be contaminated with pesticides.

That plural—pesticides—is no joke. Despite growing consumer demand for healthier, more sustainably grown food, many samples of the most contaminated produce tested positive for residues from not one but two or more chemical pesticides. A single sample of strawberries contained residues from a whopping 17 different pesticides.

The EWG’s new list, released Tuesday, is based on tests conducted in 2014 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on close to 7,000 samples. While nearly three-quarters of those samples contained residue from at least one pesticide, the advocacy group crunched the numbers to once again come up with its list of the dozen different fruits and veggies that chemical-conscious consumers should be most wary of. So, without further ado...

1. Strawberries
2. Apples
3. Nectarines
4. Peaches
5. Celery
6. Grapes
7. Cherries
8. Spinach
9. Tomatoes
10. Sweet bell peppers
11. Cherry tomatoes
12. Cucumbers

This year, the group awarded what might be called two dishonorable mentions as well, or what the EWG categorizes as “Dirty Dozen Plus.” Neither hot peppers nor leafy greens (including kale and collard greens) technically meets the group’s criteria for the “Dirty Dozen,” but both types of produce were shown to be frequently contaminated with pesticides that are considered to be particularly toxic.

No doubt responding to past criticism that such lists are liable to scare shoppers to steer clear of the produce aisle altogether, the EWG takes pains to point out that the health benefits of consuming at least three recommended servings of vegetables per day and two of fruit far outweigh the risk of eating pesticide-laced produce. Nevertheless, federal regulations governing pesticide use remain much less stringent than what many independent experts believe would adequately protect public health—“tolerance” levels are set by the Environmental Protection Agency based on exposures that could cause injury in a worker-related incident—and do not protect against the health risks attributed to low-level pesticide exposures, such as cancer, hormone disruption, and neurological development problems in children. As the EWG put it: “Some liken pesticide tolerances to a 500 mph speed limit. If the rules of the road are so loose that it’s impossible to violate them, then nobody can feel safe.”

In the absence of stronger federal safeguards against pesticide abuse, the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list and its companion “Clean Fifteen” list of relatively pesticide-free fruits and vegetables continues to provide shoppers with the kind of transparency and information with which to make the educated choices consumers increasingly want.

No, not even I, who write about this sort of thing for a living, buy all organic all the time. But I’ve long carried the EWG’s list around in my head, opting to spend a bit more, say, for strawberries that are organically grown (and thus pesticide-free) while settling for conventionally grown onions—number six on the EWG’s “Clean Fifteen”—so as not to break the bank. Although I do love those sweet yellow onions at my local farmers market.