Shopping for fruits and vegetables rarely (if at all) comes with a warning about which foods we need to be wary of. Aren't all fruits and veggies supposed to be good for us? Why would someone need to be worried about their produce if they follow protocol and wash everything in the sink before consumption?

Don't shoot the messenger, but unless we're hunting for our produce in a farmer's market, plenty of fruits and veggies come contaminated with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists break down this information for us, but unfortunately many people aren't aware of them.

The following is a thorough breakdown of everything you need to know about each list, their recommendations for buying better produce, and what scientists and researchers have to say about the compiled lists.

What Is The Dirty Dozen List And Why Should I Care?

a person holding a basket of fruits and veggies

With a name like "dirty dozen," it's difficult not to panic a little. It's equally difficult to imagine ever reaching for these guys again in the produce aisle, but there are some things you should know before making any final decisions.

The dirty dozen list is an exhaustive list of fruits and veggies compiled from the Environmental Working Group (EWG). They have been producing lists since 2004 and each item on the list contains significant traces of pesticide residue on them compared to others on the clean 15 list.

Contaminated produce should really be avoided at all costs and bought in organic form. When you reach for produce containing lingering pesticides you're opening the door for a slew of health issues including fertility complications or potentially causing cancer. Earlier this year a study was published by the JAMA Network linking higher pesticide levels in produce causing live birth complications in women. There have also been dozens of studies linking pesticide residue to various cancers such as lung and breast cancer.

The World Health Organization (WHO) explained that pesticides are used on a variety of crops to protect them against bugs and fungi, but they can potentially be damaging to humans in multiple ways.

What Are Dirty Dozen Foods For 2018?

a bunch of spinach closeup

This year the EWG announced that the produce with the highest levels of pesticide residue are:

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

The research was conducted with help from the USDA, whose tests discovered 230 different pesticides and pesticide residues on thousands of samples analyzed. The EWG analyzes these samples and compiles the dirty dozen list based on the top items containing the highest levels of residues.

The EWG reported that their key findings from this year's list:

  • 98 percent of strawberry, spinach, peach, nectarine, cherry, and apple samples tested positive for residue from at least one pesticide.
  • Strawberries clocked in with residues from over 20 pesticides.
  • Spinach had approximately 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than other crops.

In addition to their alarming spinach finding, they also discovered that a dangerous pesticide known as DDT was found on at least 40 percent of spinach samples. DDT has been banned from Europe due to the various health risks, including research linking DDT to autism.

What Is The Clean 15 List And Why Should I Care?

asparagus in a brown bowl on a table

On the contrary, the clean 15 list is something the EWG also releases every year, which is a collection of produce on the other end of the spectrum. Of the fruits and vegetable samples tested, the clean 15 collection tested positive for the least amounts of pesticide residue. Their list included the following foods: avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, frozen sweet peas, papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydews, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower, and broccoli.

Some of their key findings for the clean 15 list were:

  • Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest with less than one percent of samples showing noticeable pesticides.
  • Over 80 percent of pineapple, papaya, asparagus, onion, and cabbage samples has no pesticide residues present.

The EWG suggests that ingesting foods with lower levels of pesticide residues is much healthier for you in the long run and contributes to better health.

Before you go thinking that you need to cut everything on the dirty dozen list from your grocery list, know that there is a solution to pesticide-free foods. The EWG recommends you buy your produce organically as often as you can in order to avoid any residues that could potentially make it on your produce. However, they also suggest that you not swear off fruits and veggies entirely either. They wrote that skipping out on produce is far more dangerous for you than eating conventionally grown food.

What Do Researchers Say About EWG's List?

a plate of fruits and veggies on a table

Multiple researchers also stated that the dirty dozen and clean 15 lists shouldn't deter you from healthy eating or avoiding these foods altogether. In fact, there have also been many scientists and researchers speaking out against the EWG list for their inaccurate representation of information.

For example, the Alliance for Food and Farming is a non-profit organization dedicated to telling consumers all they need to know about safely consuming produce. Executive director for the alliance, Teresa Thorne, told Global News that people should take the EWG's list with a grain of salt. "[The list] is not based upon risk and has now been shown to potentially discourage consumption of healthy and safe organic and conventional fruits and vegetables," she told them. "If EWG truly cares about public health, it will stop referring to popular produce items that kids love as 'dirty' and move toward positive, science-based information that reassures consumers and promotes consumption."

Additionally, geneticist Anastasia Bodnar has been speaking out about the EWG list since 2010. She published an article first specifying how consumers need the EWG and their research, but also that people should look more into the details. Bodnar discussed how consumers need to focus on two big things missing from the dirty dozen list: the dosage of pesticide residue on produce compared to EPA guidelines and which type of pesticide was found on the samples.

veggies lying down on a table

However, the EWG's senior science advisor, Olga Naidenko, told Huffington Post that the reason the organization doesn't differentiate between different levels of pesticides in accordance with EPA guidelines is "because the presence of multiple pesticides, even at levels below the EPA tolerance, may have additive effects."

There was also a study published by Carl K. Winter and Josh M. Katz (Ph.D. experts at the Department of Food Science and Technology, University of California) who said that ingesting the foods from the dirty dozen list actually posed a very small risk. In fact, one key factor their research found was that the methodology used by the EWG to rank each item "lacks scientific credibility."

Final Notes

It's up to you how you want to get your daily recommended dose of fruits and vegetables into your diet. The annual EWG list is based on their analysis of various samples and their information shouldn't deter you from healthy eating or purchasing expensive organic food if it's not in the budget.

These annual lists that come out are meant to keep consumers informed and educate them about how they can eat better. That doesn't mean you should take them at face value and change your diet to ignore foods that are said to be bad for you.

Read these studies with caution and make your own decisions regarding your health and the health of your family. Be sure to do your research thoroughly so you can make an informed decision before swearing anything off for good.

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