On Monday, the environmental health activists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their annual report on pesticides in produce, ranking the “cleanest” and “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables, based on levels and types of pesticide residue found in government tests.
Apples topped the list of most contaminated produce, jumping three spots from last year on the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey, pesticides showed up on 98% of some 700 apples tested. Coming in behind apples were celery (last year’s No. 1) and strawberries.
The EWG’s report, which it refers to as a “Shopper’s Guide,” also included a “Clean 15” list of conventional produce with the lowest pesticide loads. Topping that ranking: onions, corn and pineapples.
Certainly, everyone can agree that pesticides are generally not good for human health. Indeed, higher exposure in kids has been associated with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; maternal exposure has been linked with children’s lower IQ; and excessive pesticide exposure can increase the risk of some cancers.
But it’s not clear how dangerous pesticide residue in produce may be for the average consumer eating an apple or a grape. As my colleague Bryan Walsh pointed out over on Ecocentric, there are a few nuances that get lost in the EWG’s rankings:
[I]t’s important to keep in mind that the USDA found that just 3% of all the samples of produce, beef and rice it analyzed in this survey had either unapproved chemicals or improper levels of pesticide — at least by the government’s standards.
As the U.S. Apple Association also noted in a statement [PDF]: “Of the over 700 apple-samples that were tested by the USDA, the vast majority fell well below EPA approved safety levels. … The [Dirty Dozen] ‘list’ does not pay attention to the actual levels of residues in the various foods which are within those tolerance (safe) levels, but simply states that residues were detected.”
One thing on which nutrition experts, the government and the EWG agree is that the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh any risk of pesticide exposure. That means Americans should be eating at least five servings of fruits and veggies a day — half your plate at each meal, the government recommends — a standard that all too few people actually meet.
We [should] all be trying to reduce exposure to pesticides and other chemicals in our food supply — producers, consumers and the government. But the number one priority should be to ensure that Americans eat their fruits and veggies — wherever they come from.
If you’re concerned about your family’s pesticide load, the EWG recommends buying certified organic produce, which should be pesticide-free. Of course, that can get expensive. Alternatively, you can stick to the EWG’s list of clean but conventionally grown fruits and vegetables, which includes such good-for-you foods as sweet potatoes, avocados and grapefruit.
Further, according to the EWG’s calculations, people who eat five servings of “clean” produce a day and avoid the Dirty Dozen can reduce their overall pesticide exposure by 92% and reduce the number of pesticide types they consume as well.
The bottom line, however, is that you shouldn’t avoid fruits and vegetables because of a fear of pesticides. If you swapped out potentially pesticide-laden fresh foods for a steady diet of processed foods, you wouldn’t be doing your body any favors: processed foods, which are typically high in sodium, fat and sugar and low in fiber, are associated with a host of health problems, including heart disease and stroke.
6. Imported nectarines
7. Imported grapes
8. Sweet bell peppers
12. Kale/collard greens
6. Sweet peas
9. Domestic cantaloupe
13. Sweet potatoes