Got Pesticides? Apples Top the New “Dirty Dozen” List
Summer is prime time for fresh fruits and veggies. Centering your diet around cooling, juicy plant foods is a great way to stay healthy and hydrated during the warm Summer months. Of course, you’ll want to make sure those fruits and vegetables are not loaded with toxic chemicals.
I don’t think I need to go into detail here about why you should make every effort to purchase certified organic or pesticide-free food whenever possible (or grow your own). Unfortunately, however, eating organic food exclusively is not within the realm of financial possibility for everyone. And sometimes, organic food is just not readily available.
Shopper’s Guide Helps You Decide Which Fruits and Veggies to Buy Organic
Luckily, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has just released its annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which is designed to help consumers make informed decisions when shopping for fresh produce. It contains the now-infamous “Dirty Dozen” list of the most heavily chemically-tainted fruits and vegetables, as well as the “Clean 15,” a list of the produce that tends to be the least contaminated and the safest to buy non-organic. The EWG uses data that the USDA releases annually about the pesticide residues found in 53 common fruits and vegetables, along with government data compiled over the course of a decade, to create the guide.
Topping the Dirty Dozen list this year are apples. According to the EWG, pesticides were found on 98% of the apples tested. The apple industry contends, however, that the levels of pesticide residues detected in the apples are well within safe ranges. They also claim that eliminating fruits and vegetables from your diet is much riskier than consuming pesticides. (I guess they are assuming that apples grown without pesticides are not an option.)
Industry Claims Pesticides Keep Food “Fresh and Nutritious”
The release of the EWG guide was delayed this year, as a result of aggressive lobbying by several produce and pesticide industry organizations which delayed the release of this year’s USDA pesticide residue report. These trade organizations, including such groups as CropLife America (formerly known as the Agricultural Insecticide and Fungicide Association) and the Alliance for Food and Farming, lobbied hard to get the USDA to downplay the risks associated with the chemicals used to grow conventional fruits and vegetables, in conjunction with the release of its pesticide report.
Interestingly enough, the EWG reports that the Alliance for Food and Farming’s campaign against the EWG guide was subsidized by a $180,000 grant from the USDA via the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Yeah, you read that right. Your tax dollars were used to support a pro-pesticide campaign aimed at hiding information from consumers about pesticide residues on the fruits and vegetables they buy. Regardless, the pro-pesticide lobbying efforts seem to have been minimally successful, judging by the industry backlash that has accompanied the release of the EWG guide.
In a statement released on Monday, the Alliance for Food and Farming actually accused the EWG’s guide of being “misleading to consumers” and said that it “should not be used when making purchasing decisions about fruits and vegetables.”
Mark Seetin, director of regulatory affairs for the U.S. Apple Association, told the Wall Street Journal, “It’s a headache. It implies that something terrible is going on. But growers are doing nothing illegal. They’re just trying to keep their apples fresh and nutritious.”
Experts Say Dangers of Pesticide Exposure Are Very Real
The industries whose very existence depends on the continued application of pesticides to food crops will, of course, attempt to justify their use, claiming that they make food better and more affordable. However, the dangers of pesticide exposure are well-documented, and even if there is a “time and place” for controlled application of pesticides (as with integrated pest management), their use within our food system is utterly out of control.
“Pesticides, while designed specifically to kill certain organisms, are also associated with a host of very serious health problems in people, including neurological deficits, ADHD, endocrine system disruption and cancer,” renowned natural health and nutrition expert, Dr. Andrew Weil, said in a written statement issued by the EWG. His advice to consumers is to “whenever possible avoid exposure to pesticides, including pesticide residues on food.”
And according to pediatric health expert, Dr. Harvey Karp, “Even small amounts of these chemicals add up and can impair a child’s health when they’re exposed during the early, critical stages of their development.”
So, without further ado, here are the 12 fruits and vegetables most likely to be heavily contaminated with pesticides when grown using conventional methods. These are the ones that you definitely want to buy organic, whenever possible.
The Dirty Dozen
- Imported nectarines
- Imported grapes
- Sweet bell peppers
- Domestic blueberries
- Kale and collard greens
And here are the 15 fruits and vegetables that rank lowest in pesticide residues, and therefore may be safer to purchase non-organic.
The Clean 15
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet peas
- Domestic cantaloupe
- Sweet Potatoes
I encourage you to peruse the EWG’s 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce online, where you can download a free PDF of the guide and sign up to receive email updates from the EWG. For a small donation, you can also get a version of the guide sent to you as a tag that can be attached to reusable shopping bags, and an iPhone app will be available in the near future.
Don’t Panic, Go Organic! (Or, Simply Do What You Can to Avoid Consuming Pesticides)
The EWG makes clear in their press release about the 2011 guide that they are not advising people to stop eating the fruits and vegetables listed in the Dirty Dozen. They say that “the health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure,” but I’m not sure I agree with that blanket statement.
Certainly, it’s important to include plenty of fresh whole fruits and vegetables in your diet. And it may very well be true in the case of someone who has no or extremely limited access to organically grown foods, that they would be better off including fresh produce in their diet — even if it has pesticides in it. However, I don’t think the same applies if you have the option of buying organic all or most of the time, or growing your own food. And, I think more people actually have these option than truly realize it. I know that it’s an extremely complicated matter, and that the American food system has to change on a deep, fundamental level before pesticide-free food becomes the norm, or at least accessible to all, regardless of their location or socioeconomic status.
In the meantime, I hope that more people will start to realize that they do, in fact, have a lot of choices when it comes to avoiding pesticides. It may not be in your budget to shop exclusively at Whole Foods and eat at organic restaurants. You can, however, make choices every day that will, eventually, help shift your diet and our food system and food culture as a whole towards a “cleaner,” more sustainable model. Here are some ideas: Plant a garden, join a CSA or buy in-season (pesticide-free) produce in bulk from a local farmer and freeze it.
What are some of the ways you keep pesticides out of your diet? Please leave a comment below!