The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 Fruits and Veggies

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 2021 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 annual 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):

2021 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 DozenTM and Clean FifteenTM 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:

Dirty DozenTM Foods (Most Contaminated)Clean FifteenTM Foods (Least Contaminated)
1.      Strawberries1.      Avocado
2.      Spinach2.     Sweet Corn
3.      Kale, Collard and Mustard Greens3.     Pineapple
4.      Nectarines4.    Onions
5.      Apples5.     Papaya
6.     Grapes6.     Sweet Peas (frozen)
7.     Cherries7.     Eggplant
8.     Peaches8.     Asparagus
9.     Pears9.    Broccoli
10.  Bell & Hot Peppers10.   Cabbage
11.  Celery11.   Kiwi
12.  Tomatoes12.  Cauliflower
13.   Mushrooms
14.  Honeydew Melon
15.   Cantaloupe

I was particularly happy to see that five of my top healing foods – avocados, onions, asparagus, cauliflower, and broccoli – made the clean list. However, kale, 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 90 percent of the spinach, kale, strawberry, nectarine, cherries and apple samples tested positive for at least two pesticide residues.
  • One sample of kale, mustard greens and collards had 20 different residual pesticides
  • Kale and spinach, by weight, contain more pesticides than other fruit or veggie tested
  • Hot and bell peppers contained the most pesticides, followed by kale, collards and mustard greens
  • Less than 2 percent of avocado and sweet corn tested contained a pesticide.

Another fruit mentioned in the report as having a high pesticide residue score was raisins. That’s right – a go-to children’s snack that’s thought to be so healthy! Were raisins fresh produce, they would have topped the Dirty Dozen list. As EWG noted in 2020: “Almost every sample of non-organic raisins tested by the USDA – 99 percent – had residues of at least two pesticides, as did 91 percent of organic raisins.” The takeaway? Eat fresh, prunes or fresh organic grapes instead of raisins.

You can read the report’s summary for more information about methodology and conclusions, and get the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists here.

What the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Foods Mean for Your Health

It’s simple: Use the EWG’s Dirty DozenTM and Clean FifteenTM lists 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 grown 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 fruit 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 DozenTM and Clean FifteenTM food lists and use them as guides every time you go shopping.


©  Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.

Most Popular