According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences – National Institutes of Health, “A pesticide is any substance used to kill, repel, or control certain forms of plant or animal life that are considered to be pests. Pesticides include herbicides for destroying weeds and other unwanted vegetation, insecticides for controlling a wide variety of insects, fungicides used to prevent the growth of molds and mildew, disinfectants for preventing the spread of bacteria, and compounds used to control mice and rats. Because of the widespread use of agricultural chemicals in food production, people are exposed to low levels of pesticide residues through their diets.”
Much of the information that we have on pesticide concentration in fruits and vegetables comes from pesticide testing data collected by the US Department of Agriculture, which has completed pesticide testing in 11 states on more than 95 commodities, including fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, grains, dairy products, poultry, beef and more. The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program has also tested for more than 450 different pesticides.
The NIEHS notes that scientists do not fully understand exactly how pesticides affect humans.
This may mean that pesticides can be more innocuous than some people believe, or more harmful in the long term. The answer for some has been to attempt to avoid pesticides entirely, in favor of fruit and vegetables grown “organically” (which simply refers to agricultural growth without using pesticides).
But how exactly do consumers determine which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are possibly ‘dirtier’ than thought and should be swapped for their organic cousins?
The Dirty Dozen
To answer that question, the Environmental Working Group assembled a list of the “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables to avoid (due to high concentrations of pesticides) and the “Clean 15,” a list of organically grown fruits and vegetables considered “cleaner” alternatives. According to the Executive Summary of the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, “The Shopper’s Guide to Pesticide in Produce will help you determine which fruits and vegetables have the most pesticide residues and are the most important to buy organic.”
The EWG’s Dirty Dozen list includes the following commonly consumed fruits and vegetables:
- imported nectarines
- imported grapes
- sweet bell peppers
- domestic blueberries
- kale/collard greens
The EWG recommends buying organic alternatives to the aforementioned foods, particularly the top three (apples, celery and strawberries). According to the EWG, “98 percent of conventional apples had pesticides.” Celery fared no better, as it was noted that “Highly contaminated, celery tested positive for 57 different pesticides.” It was also noted that “some strawberries had as many as 13 different pesticides.”
The Clean 15
The “Clean 15” list offers hope, however, for those consciously seeking out foodstuffs with low to no levels of pesticide residues. The clean list includes the following:
- sweet corn
- sweet peas
- domestic cantaloupe
- sweet potatoes
The ‘cleanest’ of the clean included onions (ranked #1), sweet corn (ranked #2) and pineapples (ranked #3). Conventional onions, the EWG notes, are a “a clean crop. Less than 1 percent of samples had any pesticides.” Sweet corn provides a sweet and clean source of energy as well, as “98 percent of all frozen and sweet corn samples had no detectable pesticide residues.”
Those individuals interested in finding out the typical pesticide concentration in some of their other favorite fruits and vegetables can also consult the full list of 53 fruits and vegetables, ranked from highest to lowest concentrations of pesticides, gleaned from testing data from the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration.