Not all of us can or want to afford to go 100% organic every time we shop. The best solution is to focus on those foods that come with the heaviest burden of pesticides, additives and hormones. According to the Environmental Working Group, consumers can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80% by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating only the cleanest.
If consumers get their recommended 5 daily servings of fruits and veggies from the 15 most contaminated, they could consume an average of 10 pesticides a day. Those who eat the 15 least contaminated conventionally grown produce ingest less than 2 pesticides daily.
EWG has been publishing guides to the “dirty dozen” of most pesticide contaminated foods since 1995, based on statistical analysis of testing conducted by the USDA and the FDA. The latest guide is now available. The “dirty dozen” list only reflects measurable pesticide residues on the parts of the foods normally consumed (i.e. after being washed and peeled). Below you will find the listed 12 along with a few more recommendations for foods other than fruits and vegetables that are best bought organic. Also included are safer alternatives to those foods that contain similar valuable vitamins and minerals.
It’s important to remember that the dirty dozen list provides no information about antibiotics or hormones, or about the impact of producing food on the surrounding environment. This list of foods is purely some of the most important foods to buy organic, when taking a more holistic approach.
The Dirty List
Meat, Milk, Coffee, Celery, Peaches, Strawberries, Apples, Blueberries, Nectarines, Bell Peppers, Spinach, Kale, Cherries, Potato, Grapes, Lettuce/Leafy Greens, Carrots, Pears and Tomatoes
Meat: For overall environmental impact, meat is the king of foods, even if it’s not likely to be laced with pesticide residue, though a recent USDA Inspector General report found that the government is failing to even test meat for the harmful chemicals the law requires. While beef muscle is typically clean, beef fat is a different story altogether, with 10 different pesticides having been identified. Pork meat can be contaminated, but pork fat is more contaminated, with as many as 8 pesticides. For chicken, the thigh is most contaminated.
Raising animals with conventional modern methods often means using hormones to speed up growth, antibiotics to resist disease on crowded feed lots, and both pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow the grain fed to the animals. Additionally, it takes many times the water and energy to raise one meal’s worth of meat than it does one meal’s worth of grain.
Consumers looking to avoid meats raised with these substances can seek out certified organic meat. To meet standards, this meat can come only from animals fed organic feed and given no hormones or antibiotics. Searching out cuts from grass-fed animals ensures that you’re eating meat from an animal that was fed a more natural diet, and looking for a local source of meats lets you question the farmer directly about the animal’s diet and the farmer’s method of raising it. It cuts down on the environmental cost of transportation, too.
Milk: Pesticides and other man-made chemicals have been found in human breast milk, so it should come as no surprise that they have been found in dairy products, too. Twelve different pesticides have been identified in milk, and milk is of special concern because it is a staple of a child’s diets.
Organic dairies cannot feed their cows with grains grown with pesticides, nor can they use antibiotics or growth hormones like rGBH or rbST. The overall impact of the herd is lessened when you choose organic milk.
Coffee: Many of the beans you buy are grown in countries that don’t regulate use of chemicals and pesticides. Look for the USDA Organic label to ensure you’re not buying beans that have been grown or processed with the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Go a step or two further, and look for the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance (or Bird Friendly) labels to ensure that your purchase supports farmers who are paid fairly and treated well. And look for shade-grown (Rainforest Alliance- or Bird Friendly-Certified) varieties for the trifecta; that way you know the coffee is being grown under the canopy of the rainforest, leaving those ancient trees intact, along with the wildlife – particularly songbirds – that call them home.
Can’t find organic? Safer alternatives include broccoli, radishes and onions.
A perennial entrant on the Dirty Dozen list, 64 pesticides detected in residue on this veggie make celery rank No. 1 in the 2010 analysis, up from No. 4 in 2009.
Alternatives include watermelon, tangerines, oranges and grapefruit.
Peaches, No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen list in 2009, rank No. 2 in 2010; 62 pesticides have been detected in residue on peaches.
Alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.
Up from No. 6 in 2009, strawberries rank No. 3 on the 2010 Dirty Dozen list. Why? 59 pesticides have been detected in residue on strawberries.
Apples: Like peaches, apples are typically grown with the use of poisons to kill a variety of pests, from fungi to insects. Scrubbing and peeling doesn’t eliminate chemical residue completely, so it’s best to buy organic when it comes to apples. Peeling a fruit or vegetable also strips away many of their beneficial nutrients.
Alternatives include watermelon, bananas and tangerines.
Down from No. 2 in 2009, apples still rank among the dirtiest fruits and vegetables, with 42 different pesticides having been detected as residue.
Blueberries: New on the Dirty Dozen list in 2010, blueberries are treated with as many as 52 pesticides, making them one of the dirtiest berries on the market.
Nectarines: With 33 different types of pesticides found on nectarines, they rank up there with apples and peaches among the dirtiest tree fruit.
Alternatives include, watermelon, papaya and mango.
Tests have found 49 different pesticides on sweet bell peppers.
Alternatives include green peas, broccoli and cabbage.
Spinach: New on the list for 2010, spinach can be laced with as many as 48 different pesticides, making it one of the most contaminated green leafy vegetable.
Alternatives include cabbage, asparagus and broccoli.
Cherries: Even locally grown cherries are not necessarily safe. In fact, in one survey in recent years, cherries grown in the U.S. were found to have three times more pesticide residue then imported cherries. Government testing has found 42 different pesticides.
Alternatives include raspberries and cranberries.
Potatoes: North America’s popular spud re-appears on the 2010 dirty dozen list, after a year hiatus. North America’s favorite vegetable can be laced with as many as 37 different pesticides.
Alternatives include eggplant, cabbage and earthy mushrooms.
Grapes: Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically only imported grapes make the 2010 Dirty Dozen list). Vineyards can be sprayed with different pesticides during different growth periods of the grape, and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape’s thin skin. Remember, wine is made from grapes, which testing shows can harbor as many as 34 different pesticides.
Alternatives include kiwi and raspberries.
Lettuce and Leafy Greens: Leafy greens are frequently contaminated with what are considered the most potent pesticides used on food (51 of them), though they dropped off the 2010 list.
Alternatives include cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Carrots: Off the list in 2010, carrots have made the Dirty Dozen list in previous years because of the 26 different pesticides that have been detected in food residue.
Can’t find organic? At least be sure to scrub and peel them.
Pears: As insects become more resilient to the pesticides used on pears, more and more chemicals are used (28 of them), though pears have dropped off the 2010 Dirty Dozen list. The safest bet is to go organic.
Alternatives include grapefruit, honeydew melon and mangos.
It’s still true that the thin skin of tomatoes can allow pesticides to enter the fruit, so it’s always a good idea to buy organic when possible, even if the popular food is no longer among the worst actors.
What if Buying Organics Just Isn’t In Your Budget?
Here is a list of fruit and vegetables so clean of pesticides you don’t have to buy organic. (Of course, buying local and organic is always a good choice for the health of farms and farm workers, regardless of the residue left on the end product.)
Pesticides Free Foods
Onions, Avocado, Sweet Corn, Pineapple, Mango, Asparagus, Sweet Peas, Kiwi, Cabbage, Eggplant, Papaya, Watermelon, Broccoli, Tomatoes and Sweet Potatoes.
Choose: Look for onions that are firm, have a distinctive “oniony” smell that’s not overpowering, and show no visible signs of damage or soft spots. Store in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
Choose: Look for avocados that are still somewhat unripe and firm to the squeeze; they’ll ripen nicely on your kitchen counter in a couple of days. Store at room temperature. Although you’ll be using only the meat of the avocado, it’s always a good idea to rinse them before you slice them open.
Choose: There is nothing — we mean nothing like fresh corn on the cob from a local farm stand in late summer. Buy it fresh and local, and boil it that day for the best results.
Choose: Although tempting, this is one fruit that you won’t want to choose if it has a strong, sweet smell. This usually means that the pineapple is overripe and has even begun to ferment. Like all other fruits, avoid any that have soft spots, and in the case of pineapples, damage to the rind. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: Depending on the variety of mango, look for those that are bright in color such as red, yellow, or orange. It should have a distinctive “fruity” smell. If there’s no ripe-fruit aroma, steer clear. Mangoes should be slightly firm but yield to your touch somewhat — the softer the mango, usually the sweeter it is. If the mango is too soft, there’s a good chance that it will be rotten inside. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: Look for firm spears with bright green or purplish compact tips. Plan on a 1/2 pound per person, and for more uniform cooking, select spears of a similar thickness. Store in the refrigerator vegetable crisper and give them a good rinse before using (even if you’re going to boil them).
Choose: If you’re not growing sweet peas un your garden, then look for full, green pea pods at your local farmers market, farm stand or grocery store.
Choose: Here’s where your nose plays an important part when choosing fresh fruit. Sniff out kiwis that smell good. They should be plump and yield to a squeeze like that of a ripe pear. Steer clear from those with moist areas on their surface or any skin bruising. If unripe kiwi are all that are available, simply take them home and place them in a paper bag at room temperature with other fruits that need more time, such as bananas or pears. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: Look for cabbage heads whose leaves are tight and be sure the head is heavy for its type, and firm. For most cabbage varieties, you’ll want to make sure the outer leaves are shiny and crisp. Savoy is the exception to this rule, as it forms a looser head and the leaves grow crinkly naturally. You’ll want to avoid any with leaves that show signs of yellowing. Bok choy should have deep green leaves with their stems a crisp-looking white. Discard the outer leaves of a cabbage before using. You can wash and spin most cabbage leaves just like you do salad greens. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: Look for firm and glossy eggplants to know they’re ripe and undamaged. Because they grow to various sizes, choose one proportionate to the dish you’re preparing.
Choose: Papaya colors usually range between yellow and green. Look for those that are slightly soft and show no signs of bruising or appear shriveled. If they’re not fully ripened, you can toss them in the brown bag along with your unripened kiwi fruit, peaches, and pears. Once they’re ripened, store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: Look for a firm whole melon without any soft spots.
Choose: Look for tightly bunched flower buds on the broccoli stalks that are immature. In other words, try not to buy them if their little yellow flowers have opened. Color-wise, the broccoli should be deep green and the stalks should be firm and not rubbery. Before use, wash in a cool water bath and change the water a couple of times in the process. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Choose: If you aren’t growing your own, look for fresh in-season tomatoes at local farmers markets and farm stands. Look for glossy, firm skin — and don’t hesitate to try a delicious heirloom variety that might not look like a typical tomato!
Choose:It’s hard to go wrong choosing a hardy sweet potato. Just make sure it isn’t beaten up or rotting, and choose a size that matches the meal you’re preparing.