How Safe Is Your Produce? Authorities List the 12 Dirtiest—and 15 Cleanest—Fresh Groceries for 2022
Protect yourself from chemicals by following the Environmental Working Group's 2022 insights for safer produce shopping.
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What are the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean Fifteen” from the Environmental Working Group?
Around this time each year, many savvy grocery shoppers await the Environmental Working Group‘s (EWG) lists of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen produce items. Today, the 2022 lists have been released.
EWG is a Washington, D.C.-based consumer advocacy group that, since 1993, has worked to raise public awareness and with Congress to champion legislation to protect American consumers from dangerous chemicals used in food production, cleaning products, and cosmetics. Alexis Temkin, PhD, a toxicologist and researcher at EWG, tells The Healthy, “The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Shopper’s Guides were designed to give consumers options while in the produce aisle to know which fruits and vegetables have the highest and lowest pesticide residues.”
The 2022 Dirty Dozen list marks the nineteenth year the group has ranked the pesticide contamination of popular fruits and vegetables, based on test results by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on thousands of produce samples tested for hundreds of pesticides. The fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues are then ranked as the Dirty Dozen, and those with the lowest—meaning they’re the safest, according to EWG’s annual research—are dubbed the Clean Fifteen.
Why are some fruits and vegetables dirtier than others? Temkin offers a couple examples: “Strawberries have the highest contamination because of their porous skin, allowing in more pesticides. Avocados, on the other hand, have a hard outer shell, which protects the flesh from contamination.” She adds, “Leafy greens and strawberries are grown near the ground and are more attractive to pests, so they often have more pesticide residues.”
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Are pesticides in food harmful to you?
Temkin points to recent research from Harvard University showing that eating fruits and vegetables with high pesticide residues over time may decrease their health benefits, including protection against cardiovascular disease, mortality, and fertility complications.
Meanwhile, registered dietitian Reda Elmardi, RD, CPT cites a document released by the Environmental Protection Agency, saying, “Pesticides in food are linked to cancer, congenital disabilities, neurological disorders, hormone disruption, organ damage, and other adverse effects.”
Elena Ivanina, DO, MPH—a gastroenterologist—adds, “Pesticides in food can be harmful to our health. Studies have found that chronic, lower dose exposure to pesticides can be associated with respiratory problems, memory issues, ADD/ADHD, skin conditions, depression, miscarriage, congenital disabilities, cancer, and neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.”
Does organic produce contain pesticides?
Buying organic can provide some assurance, but it’s still important to educate yourself—just because a food is labeled organic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s pesticide-free. The reason for this, says Dr. Ivanina, is that organic farmers in most states can use chemical sprays as long as they’re derived from natural sources. Also, organic produce may have traces of residue because of organic farming-approved pesticides or airborne pesticides that can travel in the air from traditional farms.
Which produce made the EWG’s Clean Fifteen list for 2022?
This year’s Clean Fifteen include the following, beginning with the EWG’s “cleanest” picks at the top:
Sweet peas (frozen)
What are the Dirty Dozen of 2022?
Starting with strawberries as the “dirtiest,” here are the produce items that made the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list this year:
Strawberries continue to top the Dirty Dozen list of fruits and veggies that contain the highest levels of pesticides. Strawberries first topped the list in 2016 and have ranked as the dirtiest produce every year since. More than 90 percent of samples tested positive for at least two or more pesticides, according to EWG.
Due to their highly porous skin, strawberries are most vulnerable to pesticide contamination, even after being picked, rinsed, and washed before eating.
Temkin says strawberries are easy targets for pesticides because they grow low to the ground, which increases their exposure to bugs.
According to the EWG, strawberry farmers use high volumes of poisonous gases to sterilize their fields before planting, killing every pest, weed and other living thing in the soil.
Pesticide residues on strawberries have been linked to cancer, reproductive and fertility issues, hormone disruption, and neurological problems.
Data from 2015 in California (the state where the most strawberries are grown) shows that nearly 300 pounds of pesticides are used on each acre of strawberries.
Leafy Greens (Spinach, Kale, Collard and Mustard Greens)
Temkin says, “Leafy green vegetables, such as spinach, kale, collard, and mustard greens, are heavily contaminated with pesticides because they grow close to the ground where they’re more likely to be exposed to bugs and require pesticides.”
Tests found that samples of these leafy greens were contaminated with the harmful pesticide DCPA, classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a possible human carcinogen (which was banned by the European Union in 2009).
Ninety-four percent of nectarines and 99 percent of peaches tested high for pesticides. The fuzz on their skin can retain pesticides, and therefore increases contamination levels. Pesticides often accumulate on the outer peel or skin, according to a 2020 study published in Food Research International.
Apples, Pears, Grapes, Tomatoes
Fruits and vegetables where you typically eat the skin (like apples, pears, grapes, and tomatoes) tend to be worst for pesticide contamination. These fruits often contain a pesticide that is banned in Europe but is allowed in the U.S. More than 90 percent of apple and pear samples tested positive for at least two or more pesticides.
This is not widely known, but most conventionally grown apples are drenched in pesticides to prevent the skin from developing brown or black patches (known as “storage scald”) while they’re in cold storage.
The pesticide often used on apples and pears, diphenylamine, is sprayed after the fruit is harvested, which is why apples and pears tend to have higher concentrations of pesticide residues. Grapes and tomatoes are also heavily sprayed before you eat the skin.
Similar to apples, cherries are sprayed with a pesticide that’s banned in Europe. More than 90 percent of samples tested positive for at least two or more pesticides.
Celery and other vegetables that grow underground can absorb the pesticides in the soil they’re grown in.
Bell peppers & hot peppers
Though peppers contain fewer pesticides overall, the pesticides used on them are much stronger—so eating organic bell peppers is very important. Peppers, along with apples, grapes, and cherries, are often contaminated with chlorpyrifos, a pesticide originally created as an alternative to DDT.
Should you avoid eating the Dirty Dozen if you can’t buy organic?
It’s important to note that for some fruits and vegetables with edible skin, that peel can be very nutrient rich (read 7 Genius Nutrition Hacks a Dietitian Just Inspired Us to Try)—so your goal is not necessarily to do away with that altogether. It’s about understanding how to minimize your risk and also recognizing that the occasional blemish on organic produce really might not mean it’s a less healthy choice than a pristine-looking pick. One reason farmers continue to use pesticides in conventional farming is that consumers are picky with their produce, expecting to see flawless fruits and vegetables in the produce aisle. Unfortunately, produce decay doesn’t mean it lacks nutritional value or poses greater harm.
EWG recommends eating organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible, especially if you buy lots of produce on the Dirty Dozen list. Temkin says, “What we’ve seen when people switch to an organic diet and measure the concentration of these pesticides (typically through urine samples) is a rapid decrease in pesticide levels.”
At the end of the day, eating plenty of fruit and vegetables—organic or not—is still a solid choice. Keep this list on-hand next time you shop.
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United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Chemicals Evaluated for Carcinogenic Potential by the Office of Pesticide Programs”
Foods Research International: “Fate of Residual Pesticides in Fruit and Vegetable Waste (FVW) Processing”
Alexis Temkin, PhD: Toxicologist and researcher with Environmental Working Group.
Dr. Elena Ivanina, DO, MPH: Gastroenterologist with quadruple board certification in Gastroenterology, Internal medicine, Obesity medicine and Preventive medicine/Public Health.
Reda Elmardi, RD, CPT: Registered Dietitian, Certified Personal Trainer, and Owner of The Gym Goat.
Environmental Working Group: "EWG's 2021 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce"
Environment International: "Association between intake of fruits and vegetables by pesticide residue status and coronary heart disease risk."
Environment International: "Intake of fruits and vegetables according to pesticide residue status in relation to all-cause and disease-specific mortality: Results from three prospective cohort studies."
United States Environmental Protection Agency: "Human Health Issues Related to Pesticides"