Purchasing fresh vegetables and fruit from the supermarket is a step towards leading a healthier lifestyle and diet. However, unlike harvesting fresh produce from your own vegetable garden where you are in control of what goes into it, mass-produced vegetables and fruit from our supermarkets are often regulated by a cocktail of pesticides, fungicides, rodenticides, herbicides and more, to prevent unwanted species from wreaking havoc on our food. So, do we need to start adding organic produce into our shopping baskets?
Between 1960 to 2000, it has been found that pesticide use has increased almost twentyfold in worldwide agricultural crop production (Hu et al. 2015). And according to a study of 246 farmers randomly selected from provinces Guangdong, Jiangxi and Hebei in China, health investigations revealed long and short-term health effects from pesticide exposure (Hu et al. 2015). Their results found that this exposure negatively affected blood cells, the liver, kidney, electrolytes, as well as the nervous system (Hu et al. 2015).
Whilst these chemicals were originally invented to help humanity manage a variety of agricultural afflictions, there have been many problematic consequences associated with chemicals that cause “dermatological, gastrointestinal, neurological, carcinogenic, respiratory, reproductive, and endocrine effects” on both humans and animals (Nicolopoulou-Stamati et al. 2016). And whilst the agricultural sector in the West are following legislations by keeping within the safe levels of concentrations, what is being overlooked is the recurrent exposure to a combination of pesticides that may be causing unknown injurious health effects (Nicolopoulou-Stamati et al. 2016).
Based on the USDA and FDA analysis of pesticide contamination on 45 popular fruits and vegetables samples, EWG (Environmental Working Group) has used data from recent sampling periods to create a guide for shoppers when purchasing fresh produce.
Now, what are the Dirty Dozen?
According to EWG’s analysis of USDA and FDA data, produce in the Dirty Dozen list are contaminated with more pesticides than other crops (Environmental Working Group 2021). And one would think that washing their fresh produce before consuming it is enough to remove the various chemicals, however studies say otherwise. A study in 2019 tested the efficiency of removing ten different pesticides on kumquats, spinach and cucumbers, and found that washing produce with tap water only causes a 10-40% loss of pesticide residue (Wu et al. 2019).
So what popular fruits and vegetables have been found to contain higher concentrations of pesticides? The following are on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list:
Some of the key findings show that more than 90% of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy green samples tested positive for 2 or more pesticide residues. Whilst kale, collard, and mustard greens were shown to have up to 20 different pesticides, and hot peppers and bell peppers had 115 pesticides that were detected.
The Clean Fifteen
But it’s not all bad news, fortunately EWG has also provided a list of produce called the Clean Fifteen, which were shown to have the lowest amounts of pesticide residues according to their analysis of USDA data:
Almost 70% of the fruit and vegetable samples from the Clean Fifteen list showed no pesticide residues, with only 8% of samples revealed to have two or more pesticides.
Whilst this data is overwhelming, what steps can we individually take to minimise our pesticide exposure? Studies have observed a reduction in pesticide metabolites in the urinary excretion of people who have switched from conventional to organically grown produce (Vigar et al. 2020). So when it comes to shopping for the produce on the Dirty Dozen list, it’s best to opt for organic at your local supermarket, or to grow and harvest some of these vegetables yourself.
Do pesticides and other chemicals on your produce concern you? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter, and whether you will be watching out for the items on the Dirty Dozen list.
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The use of information on this website or materials linked from this website is at the user’s own risk. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
- Environmental Working Group 2021, ‘EWG’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™’, viewed 29 April 2021, <https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php>
- Hu, R, Huang, X, Huang, J, Li, Y, Zhang, C, Yin, Y, Chen, Z, Jin, Y, Cai, J & Cui, F 2015, ‘Long- and Short-Term Health Effects of Pesticide Exposure: A Cohort Study from China’, PLoS One, vol. 10(6), viewed 29 April 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4456378/
- Nicolopoulou-Stamati, P, Maipas, S, Kotampasi, C, Stamatis, P, & Hens, L 2016, ‘Chemical Pesticides and Human Health: The Urgent Need for a New Concept in Agriculture’, Front Public Health, vol. 4, no. 148, viewed 29 April 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4947579/
- Vigar, V, Myers, S, Oliver, C, Arellano, J, Robinson, S & Leifert, C 2020, ‘A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health?’, Nutrients, vol. 12(1), viewed 29 April 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7019963/
- Wu, Y, An, Q, Li, D, Wu, J & Pan, C 2019, ‘Comparison of Different Home/Commercial Washing Strategies for Ten Typical Pesticide Residue Removal Effects in Kumquat, Spinach and Cucumber’, Int J Environ Res Public Health, vol. 16(3), viewed 29 April 2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6388112/.