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Produce Buying Guide: When to Buy Organic and When Not to, The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Guide

When you’re concerned about your health, should you only buy organic? Organic produce has long been touted as the safer option, but this superiority comes with a higher price tag that can be unattainable for many.

Rather than buying either organic produce or none at all, it’s best to instead focus on the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen, two lists created by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and updated annually with the produce that has the least and most pesticides, respectively.

How can you use the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen? These lists help you see what produce is best bought organic and which you don’t have to worry about, allowing you to save money and eat fewer pesticides while stocking up on the fruits and vegetables that a healthy diet needs.

We’ve crafted this produce-buying guide to highlight the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen while also giving you some produce-buying tips if organic is out of your price range but you still want to avoid pesticides.

What’s The Danger of Eating Pesticides?

Pesticides are created to protect crops from insects, weeds, and diseases. They are chemical or biological agents, with acutely toxic organophosphate (OP) pesticides the most widely used in the United States.

When it comes to the danger of pesticides, the available research is mostly on farmworkers and pesticide applicators exposed to pesticides as a part of their occupation and less on the consumption of pesticides by the average individual. Still, this research shows that pesticide poisoning from high doses can cause symptoms such as abdominal cramps, nausea, dizziness, diarrhoea, confusion, and anxiety.

However, there is also danger in chronic exposure to lower doses of pesticides, which is more like what an individual would experience if consuming pesticides through their fruits and vegetables. These studies on chronic low-dose exposure found that it is associated with memory disorders, respiratory problems, depression, skin conditions, birth defects, miscarriage, cancer, and certain neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.

While there are fewer studies on the effects of pesticides on the average person, those that exist still cite a connection. For instance, one study showed that 8-15-year-olds with ADD/ADHD have more OP pesticide metabolites in their urine (from ingesting pesticides).

Children, in particular, can be especially susceptible to pesticides and may be at a greater risk of experiencing health concerns from their ingestion. Along these lines, pregnant and nursing mothers must also be more careful about the food they eat.

One way to limit the amount of pesticides you eat is by eating organic produce, which is grown without synthetic herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, or bioengineered genes (GMOs). There’s no nutritional benefit to eating organic—your fruits and veggies hold just as much nutritional value if they’re not organic—but you can rest easier knowing you’re not consuming as much pesticide, especially since there’s a lot we still don’t know about its safety.

Not all food needs to be purchased organic, though, and the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists can help guide you through the grocery store’s produce aisle.

The Dirty Dozen

To create this list, the EWG analyzed USDA data on 47,510 samples for 46 of the most popular fruits and vegetables. Before being tested for pesticides, the samples were washed and peeled as you would when eating the food yourself.

After combing through the data, the EWG assigned a score based on:

  • The percent of samples with detectable pesticides
  • The percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides
  • The average amount of pesticides found
  • The average number of pesticides on a single sample
  • The total number of pesticides found on the crop
  • The maximum number of pesticides on a single sample.

Based on these factors, the ranking indicates which crops are treated with the highest volume and variety of pesticides, but it doesn’t consider the specific pesticides found and their risk to human health. Still, knowing which foods have the most pesticides on them can be valuable information for your health.

The Dirty Dozen for 2024 are:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, collard, and mustard greens
  4. Grapes
  5. Peaches
  6. Pears
  7. Nectarines
  8. Apples
  9. Bell and hot pepper
  10. Cherries
  11. Blueberries
  12. Green beans

The EWG found that each item on the Dirty Dozen had at least one sample with 13 pesticides, and some had up to 23 pesticides on a single sample. Overall, 95% of the items on the Dirty Dozen were coated in pesticides.

Over 200 pesticides were found on the Dirty Dozen items, with kale, collard, and mustard greens having the most pesticides, with bell and hot peppers following.

One shocking finding from the study was that the neurotoxic organophosphate insecticide acephate, which can cause nausea, vomiting, paralysis, or seizures at high doses, was found in 6% of the green bean samples despite being prohibited from use on this crop in 2011.

Pesticides on the Dirty Dozen

Four of the five most common pesticides found on the Dirty Dozen were fungicides: pyraclostrobin, fludioxonil, pyrimethanil, and boscalid. They’re likely in such a high concentration on produce because they’re typically applied after harvest to keep produce mould-free as it travels to market.

The potential health effects of fungicides are not as well-studied as other pesticides, but their emerging evidence suggests that we may need to take more care in avoiding them, especially if we want to avoid disrupting our hormone system.

There have been a few studies that have suggested a possible association between pyraclostrobin and liver toxicity and metabolic disorders.

Studies on fludioxonil have found that it can mimic the action of estrogen and increase the proliferation of breast cancer cells. For men who ingest fludioxonil, it may harm the male reproductive system by keeping male sex hormones from binding to androgen receptors, which then blocks the effects of the male sex hormones.

Pyrimethanil may also block androgen receptors, and it has also been linked to thyroid disruption, which is another crucial hormone center in the body.

Finally, boscalid has been linked to thyroid dysfunction and cancer in animal studies, and it may also act similarly to estrogen, disrupting the hormones in the body.

The Clean Fifteen

While the Dirty Dozen includes the produce with the most pesticides, the Clean 15 fall on the opposite end of the spectrum, being the produce with the least pesticides.

The Clean 15 for 2024 are:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Asparagus
  8. Honeydew melon
  9. Kiwi
  10. Cabbage
  11. Watermelon
  12. Mushrooms
  13. Mangoes
  14. Sweet potatoes
  15. Carrots

Around 65% of the Clean 15 fruits and vegetables samples that were tested had no detectable pesticide, with avocado and sweet corn being the cleanest of the clean—less than 2% of their samples had any pesticides.

Still, despite being a part of the Clean 15, there may still be pesticides on these fruits and vegetables, with just over 10% of the produce samples having residues of two or more pesticides. This percentage is considerably lower than the fruits and vegetables that are a part of the Dirty Dozen, but it’s a reminder that the Clean 15 may not be entirely free of pesticides; they’re just the cleanest options.

Can’t Buy Organic? Try These Tips

While buying organic may be something you wish you could do, the simple fact is that it’s not possible for everyone. Organic food is more expensive than its non-organic counterpart, and some stores may not even have it as an option.

If you cannot buy organic, don’t forego fruits and veggies entirely—they’re a crucial part of a healthy diet. Instead, try these tips below to lessen the amount of pesticides on your produce.

Wash Your Produce

Washing your produce helps to rinse away some of the pesticides used, but you can make the rinse even more powerful by adding vinegar.

Vinegar appears to be more helpful in getting rid of pesticides than water alone, and all it takes is a splash of vinegar—think a ratio of 10% vinegar to 90% water. Allow your fruits and vegetables to sit in the solution for a bit, then swish it around before rinsing it off.

Buy Local

Fungicides are found in the greatest concentration on produce because most fungicides are applied after the food has been picked to keep it fresh while it’s transported to market. By buying locally, there isn’t a need for the fungicide to be added.

Buy Frozen

Frozen vegetables are just as nutritious as their fresh counterpart, with the added benefit of using temperature to prevent disease and mould rather than pesticides, meaning you’ll eat less pesticides when you go frozen.

Buying Produce: When Should You Go Organic?

The EWG annually updates its Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists so that you always know which produce has the most pesticides (and should be purchased organic) and which has the least (and is safe to buy regularly). By following these lists, you can save your health and your wallet.

References

de-Assis, M. P., Barcella, R. C., Padilha, J. C., Pohl, H. H., & Krug, S. B. F. (2021). Health problems in agricultural workers occupationally exposed to pesticides. Revista brasileira de medicina do trabalho : publicacao oficial da Associacao Nacional de Medicina do Trabalho-ANAMT, 18(3), 352–363. https://doi.org/10.47626/1679-4435-2020-532

Kalliora, C., Mamoulakis, C., Vasilopoulos, E., Stamatiades, G. A., Kalafati, L., Barouni, R., Karakousi, T., Abdollahi, M., & Tsatsakis, A. (2018). Association of pesticide exposure with human congenital abnormalities. Toxicology and applied pharmacology, 346, 58–75. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.taap.2018.03.025

Bouchard, M. F., Bellinger, D. C., Wright, R. O., & Weisskopf, M. G. (2010). Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and urinary metabolites of organophosphate pesticides. Pediatrics, 125(6), e1270–e1277.

EWG’s 2024 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in ProduceTM. (2024). Environmental Working Group. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/full-list.php

Wu, M., Bian, J., Han, S., Zhang, C., Xu, W., Tao, L., Li, Z., & Zhang, Y. (2023). Characterization of hepatotoxic effects induced by pyraclostrobin in human HepG2 cells and zebrafish larvae. Chemosphere, 340, 139732–139732. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2023.139732

Luz, A. L., Kassotis, C. D., Stapleton, H. M., & Meyer, J. N. (2018). The high-production volume fungicide pyraclostrobin induces triglyceride accumulation associated with mitochondrial dysfunction, and promotes adipocyte differentiation independent of PPARγ activation, in 3T3-L1 cells. Toxicology, 393, 150–159. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tox.2017.11.010

Go, R. E., Kim, C. W., Jeon, S. Y., Byun, Y. S., Jeung, E. B., Nam, K. H., & Choi, K. C. (2017). Fludioxonil induced cancer growth and metastasis via altering epithelial-mesenchymal transition via an estrogen receptor-dependent pathway in cellular and xenografted breast cancer models. Environmental toxicology, 32(4), 1439–1454. https://doi.org/10.1002/tox.22337

Orton, F., Rosivatz, E., Scholze, M., & Kortenkamp, A. (2011). Widely used pesticides with previously unknown endocrine activity revealed as in vitro antiandrogens. Environmental health perspectives, 119(6), 794–800. https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1002895

Andrea Corrales Vargas, Jorge Peñaloza Castañeda, Emelie Rietz Liljedahl, Ana María Mora, Jose Antonio Menezes-Filho, Smith, D. R., Mergler, D., Reich, B., Giffin, A., Hoppin, J. A., Lindh, C. H., & Berna. (2022). Exposure to common-use pesticides, manganese, lead, and thyroid function among pregnant women from the Infants’ Environmental Health (ISA) study, Costa Rica. Science of the Total Environment, 810, 151288–151288. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.151288

Pesticide Fact Sheet. (2003). https://www3.epa.gov/pesticides/chem_search/reg_actions/registration/fs_PC-128008_01-Jul-03.pdf

Jabłońska-Trypuć, A., Wydro, U., Wołejko, E., Makuła, M., Krętowski, R., Naumowicz, M., Sokołowska, G., Serra-Majem, L., Cechowska-Pasko, M., Łozowicka, B., Kaczyński, P., & Wiater, J. (2023). Selected Fungicides as Potential EDC Estrogenic Micropollutants in the Environment. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 28(21), 7437. https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules28217437

Author

  • Jessica Guht

    Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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Jessica Guht
Jessica is a medical writer with an unquenched thirst to discover something new. She believes that medical content should be universally accessible and strives to write content that everyone, no matter their background, can understand. Credentials: - Masters of Engineering (ME) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University - Bachelor of Science (BS) in Biomedical Engineering from Rutgers University

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