Photo: Oxmoor House

The Environmental Working Group announced their newly updated 2017 Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.

March 08, 2017

Strawberries stay in the top spot of "dirty" produce, and spinach takes a big step up to spot #2 on the list of foods most likely to be contaminated with synthetic pesticide residue. These list changes, part of the non-profit Environmental Working Group's (EWG) annual report on the most and least pesticide-ridden foods, were announced today.

The annual lists, which started in 1993, are compiled from the research of more than 35,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration samples of 48 different types of conventionally grown produce. The EWG tests each food after it is prepared for consumption, including after washing or even peeling, to see how many pesticides remain on the fruits and vegetables.

"Even low levels of pesticide exposure can be harmful to infants, babies and young children, so when possible, parents and caregivers should take steps to lower children's exposures to pesticides while still feeding them diets rich in healthy fruits and vegetables," said Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in a statement.

On this year's list, strawberries continued to be #1, with a whopping 99 percent of samples having detectable residue of at least one pesticide. In addition, 29 percent of strawberries tested positive for residues of 10 or more pesticides. Last year, strawberries knocked off apples, which had been in the top spot for five years. What explains the staggeringly high amount of pesticides in the little berries? Out-of-season demand. "In recent decades, the increased use of pesticides and other chemically aided growing methods have made cheap strawberries available all year," EWG said in a statement.

Spinach made a big move on the list this year. Spinach moved from #8 in 2016 to #2 this year. The research found that conventionally grown spinach contained more pesticide residues by weight than all other produce they tested. Three-quarters of the spinach samples were contaminated with permethrin, a neurotoxic bug killer that has been banned in Europe since 2000. However, most of the pesticides found on the spinach samples are considered safe and legal by the Environmental Protection Agency. Nectarines remained in spot #3.

New to the list are pears, which jumped up from number 22, and potatoes, which moved up from #15 in 2016 to #12, rounding out the full Dirty Dozen list. The EWG says the amount of pesticide residues on pears has more than doubled since 2010 and their new place on the list reflects the increase in pesticides they detected in samples. More than half of pears sampled by the group had five or more pesticide residues. In 2010, only three percent of pears had that much.

Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Peaches
  6. Pears
  7. Cherries
  8. Grapes
  9. Celery
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Sweet Bell Peppers
  12. Potatoes

 Photo: Halfdark / Getty

Also released today, the Clean Fifteen focuses on the other end of the detectable pesticide spectrum and touts the foods with the lowest amount of chemicals found in samples. Sweet corn took the top spot on this list, knocking off its predecessor, the beloved avocado. Both are still great conventionally-grown options; only one percent of samples for each showed pesticide traces. The majority of the list remained the same, with the addition of honeydew melon (at #11).

Clean Fifteen

  1. Sweet Corn
  2. Avocados
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Onions
  6. Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  7. Papayas
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangos
  10. Eggplant
  11. Honeydew Melon
  12. Kiwi
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Grapefruit

While you might read these lists and feel like we're telling you to give up strawberries and start eating more corn, that's not the takeaway. Fruit and vegetables should be part of a healthy and balanced diet, whether organic or not. If you're concerned about you or your family's pesticide consumption then request copies of the EWG's guides and follow as best you can based on your dietary preferences and budget. If budget, or availability, is an issue with foods on these lists, shop wisely, and don't eliminate whole foods just because they are not organic.

Doctors, health experts, and dietitians alike frequently tout the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen as an easy way to reduce pesticide exposure while you're shopping. The EWG even offers printable sheets they'll email you. Despite its easy-to-understand frame, the lists are not without their detractors. Critics say the Dirty Dozen list in particular focuses too much on the quantity of pesticides and not the toxicity. A 2011 study examined the EWG's methodologies and determined that exposure to many of the pesticides detected in these samples are at "negligible levels," and the methodology doesn't allow for an even comparison between types of pesticides found and the ratios at which they're detected.

Bottom Line: Buy organic when it makes sense for you and your budget. Most conventionally grown produce is okay to eat, as long as you don't eat it in high quantities or very frequently. So to prevent eating a concentrated amount of the same food, eat a diet filled with a variety of fruits and vegetables. See the full list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean FIfteen on the EWG website.