By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
One of my favorite nonprofit consumer watchdog organizations, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), recently released its 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™—an important resource that you should be using to eat healthier and reduce your disease risk.
I’ll share the key updates in a minute. But first, if you’re not familiar with the EWG, I highly recommend taking some time to browse its website and the consumer guides put together by the scientists, policy experts, and lawyers who work there. They review government data, legal documents, and scientific studies, as well as conduct their own laboratory testing, to expose threats to public health and the environment. This particular report—the Pesticides in Produce guide—is based on their analysis of testing data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
2018 Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 Food Lists
For the past several years, EWG has done a fantastic job helping consumers get smarter about the amount of pesticide residue in fruits and vegetables through its Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 food lists. These lists rank fruits and vegetables based on the amount of pesticide residue they contain after being washed and peeled, as consumers typically prepare them.
Here are this year’s results, which now include a 13th “dirtiest” food:
|Dirty Dozen Foods (Most Contaminated)||Clean 15 Foods (Least Contaminated)|
|1. Strawberries||1. Avocados|
|2. Spinach||2. Sweet Corn|
|3. Nectarines||3. Pineapples|
|4. Apples||4. Cabbages|
|5. Grapes||5. Onions|
|6. Peaches||6. Sweet Peas (frozen)|
|7. Cherries||7. Papayas|
|8. Pears||8. Asparagus|
|9. Tomatoes||9. Mangoes|
|10. Celery||10. Eggplants|
|11. Potatoes||11. Honeydew Melons|
|12. Sweet Bell Peppers||12. Kiwis|
|13. Hot Peppers||13. Cantaloupes|
|Next few: Imported snap peas,domestic blueberries, lettuce||14. Cauliflower|
I was particularly happy to see that four of my top healing foods – avocados, onions, asparagus, cauliflower, and broccoli – made the clean list. However, spinach and tomatoes came up on the dirty side of the chart, making it much more important to buy organic if those are part of your meal planning (which I hope they are!).
Some other highlights of note from this year’s report:
- Almost 70 percent of the conventional produce samples contained at least one pesticide.
- More than 98 percent of the spinach, strawberry, peach, nectarine, and apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
- 97 percent of conventional spinach samples had pesticide residues.
- In one third of all single strawberries sampled, there were at least 10 different pesticides, and one sample even showed 22 different pesticides!
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
- Less than 1 percent of avocados tested contained a pesticide.
- Some 90 percent of pineapples, 80 percent of papayas, 78 percent of mangoes, 65 percent of kiwi and 60+ percent of cantaloupes were free of pesticide residues.
Some foods not on the list—leafy greens —were called out in EWG’s Dirty Dozen PLUS category. Highly hazardous pesticide residues were frequently found on these foods, and EWG recommends that you buy organic if you eat a lot of them. Alternatively, the group suggests cooking them, as pesticide levels are usually lower in cooked food.
What the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 Foods Mean for Your Health
It’s simple: Use the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 to prioritize which fruits and veggies you absolutely must buy organic.
Generally, the best diet is a wholly organic one, and this is particularly true when it comes to produce. Organic fruits and vegetables—fruit, especially—not only have a lower pesticide load, but studies confirm they are higher in natural antioxidants, the compounds linked to reduced risk of many common diseases.
However, I also recognize that not everyone has access to organic foods or the cash to pay for them. If this is true for you, then use these lists to guide you on where to put the extra grocery dollars you do have, or on which foods you’d be best off avoiding altogether. Strawberry and apple lovers, for example, are wise to spend a little more for organic brands. But if avocados are your weakness, you’ll be fine with conventionally raised products.
Pesticide Residue: Why You Should Care
Pesticides are one of the great environmental threats to our health, particularly with the proliferation of genetically modified foods. Multiple cancers, as well as Parkinson’s disease, asthma, and birth defects have been linked with exposure to them.
I’ve consulted with patients over the years who lived in agricultural areas and who had acute reactions to pesticides. One was a woman who lived downwind from an apple orchard that was regularly sprayed; she developed severe fibromyalgia and cardiac arrhythmias.
I am so concerned about this issue that it’s even influenced my holiday gift-giving habits. In my family it’s a Christmas tradition to send boxes of fruit—usually pears or apples—as gifts to our far-flung friends. When I began learning about the pesticide content in produce, I began taking extra precaution and now do a thorough check of the fruit vendors to make doubly sure our gifts include only organic fruit.
Don’t sacrifice your health on this important topic, especially when there is such clear-cut guidance to help you. Print the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 food lists and use it as a guide every time you go shopping.
- Baranski M, Srednicka-Tober D, et al. Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses. Brit J Nutrition, 2014; published online at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24968103
- Environmental Working Group. Environmental Working Group web site, http://www.ewg.org/. Accessed April 10, 2018
- Environmental Working Group. “Executive Summary, EWG’s 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php. Accessed April 10, 2018
- Environmental Working Group. 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/. Accessed April 10, 2018.
- ST Sinatra. “Sinatra’s Super Food Series.” http://www.drsinatra.com/sinatra-super-food-series/. Accessed June 1, 2016
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