What we’re eating: The Dirty Dozen vs. the Clean Fifteen

Farmers’ market season is in full swing here in the Northeast. And for this devotee, the season of fresh local produce can never come soon enough.

This is the season I long for throughout the barren winters when supermarket produce trucked and flown in from fields far from the Hudson Valley leaves my cooking juices as well as my taste buds in the doldrums. Put simply, farmers’ market season reawakens my interest in food. Now that the season is here it’s possible to indulge in exquisite meals in which the starring role can be taken by the simplest of preparation methods – peeling, cutting, and tossing with a bit of fruity olive oil and some freshly picked herbs from the garden.

Lest anyone try to convince you differently, the fact is that taste, freshness, and healthiness are inexorably linked. At my local farmers’ market I almost exclusively buy organically grown produce. Although there are skeptics who have been known to deny the efficacy of my taste buds, I swear by my ability to taste the residue of pesticides even after thoroughly washing and peeling conventionally grown fruits and vegetables.

But taste is just the beginning of why health-conscious consumers should be thinking about whether to purchase conventionally grown produce or make the slightly higher investment during your farmers’ market season to purchase organically grown produce.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, provides sobering, science-based research that can help families make smart choices about the food we purchase and consume.

This year when EWG conducted their annual analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data, they found that nearly 70 percent of the samples USDA tested of the 48 types of conventionally grown produce were contaminated with the residues of one or more pesticides. Researchers at USDA found an astounding total of 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on the thousands of samples analyzed.

You read that last sentence correctly. Let me repeat: 178 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products were found.

One of the questions consumers should be asking is what are the health effects of the astounding number of chemicals we’re ingesting via our food supply? The truth is that contrary to popular belief, it’s been proven that pesticide residues remain on fruits and vegetables even after they’re washed and, in some cases, even when they’re peeled.

What does that contamination mean for the consumer?

The pesticide and chemical industry have been telling the public for years that pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics in produce, in dairy products, and in meat, fish, and poultry are “nothing to worry about.”  If that false reassurance reminds you of another industry that promised their products would do no harm you wouldn’t be far off the mark. We should never forget the years of promises and lies broadcast by the tobacco industry.

The question is: Who should consumers believe when looking for answers about the safety of ingesting pesticides? The independent doctors and scientists or the industry that profits from agribusiness’s addiction to pesticides, growth hormones, and antibiotics?

Here’s Dr. Philip Landrigan, Dean of Global Health and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, sharing the health industry’s conclusions about pesticide exposure in the most vulnerable – our children.

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.

If you’re looking for guidance on which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables to avoid in terms of pesticide residues and help with making informed decisions about getting the most healthy “bang for your buck” when making decisions about purchasing organically grown produce, look no further than the Environmental Working Group’s annual scorecards. They’re called the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.

The Dirty Dozen

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Potatoes

Key Findings on the Dirty Dozen from the Environmental Working Group Study

  • Nearly all samples of strawberries, spinach, peaches, nectarines, cherries, and apples tested positive for residue of at least one pesticide.
  • The most contaminated sample of strawberries had twenty different pesticides.
  • Spinach samples had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. Three-fourths of spinach samples had residues of a neurotoxic pesticide banned in Europe for use on food crops – it’s part of a class of pesticides that recent studies link to behavioral disorders in young children.

The Clean Fifteen

  • Corn
  • Avocados
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Sweet Peas Frozen
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Kiwis
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit

Key Findings on the Clean Fifteen from the Environmental Working Group Study

  • Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest: Only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions, and cabbage had no pesticide residues.
  • No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticides.
  • Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5 percent of Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.