This week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released an update to their annual Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists. These lists reveal produce with both the highest and lowest levels of pesticide residue, according to their methodology. The report looks more or less the same as last year’s guide, with strawberries claiming the unfortunate number one spot, edging out spinach and nectarines.
Here's the 2018 Dirty Dozen:
- Sweet Bell Peppers
Many of these fruits and vegetables are probably some of your favorites, often ending up on your family's shopping list and dinner table each week. As a parent, I find this information troubling. I certainly don’t want to feed my son a pesticide-laced smoothie or salad. But, as a health professional, I know how to put this information in perspective, and I’m hoping to help you do the same.
What the 'Dirty Dozen' tells you
The EWG analyzes data on fruits and vegetables to quantify the chemical residue from pesticides, noting things like the average number of pesticides found on a single sample and the maximum number detected. Their analysis is not designed to offer specifics about the chemical present or dose. That means the results aren’t designed to provide information about the levels found, nor the significance of the exposure.
The shopper’s guide is meant to provide advice so that consumers who want to limit pesticide exposure can either choose varieties with low scores (their Clean 15 list) or substitute organic produce for foods that are listed on the Dirty Dozen.
Despite the key findings and concerns the EWG raises about pesticides, they also say eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. More on this shortly, but first, let’s talk about organic farming practices.
Organics in a nutshell
Organic food is regulated by the USDA, and is a designation that refers to a system of food production and processing designed to protect and improve the environment. There are also regulations around animal welfare. These practices have many benefits and are designed to preserve our resources, like water and land.
But let’s get one thing clear: Organic produce is not pesticide-free. There are pesticides used in organic farming, but they’re derived from natural substances rather than synthetic ones, And as Carl Winter, Ph.D., Extension Food Toxicologist and Vice Chair, Food Science and Technology at University of California, Davis puts it, in either case, “the dose makes the poison.”
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How concerned should we be about pesticides?
There are theoretical concerns about pesticides, which, as a parent, worry me. Winter doesn't think we should and says “these concerns are based on values, not science.”
His research, published in the Journal of Toxicology, found that consuming foods on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list didn’t pose a real threat, and substituting the so-called worst ones for organic versions didn’t result in any appreciable reduction in risk. “The actual risk is tiny,” he says.
Toxicologists like Winter are looking at three pillars of risk: How much of this stuff are we really getting on our food, how much of the food are we eating and just how bad is the amount we’re ingesting? Recall that the Dirty Dozen isn’t designed to answer any of these questions, and therefore, Winter says, can’t provide valuable insights to shoppers. If you don’t know the levels of pesticides in strawberries and spinach, how do you know they pose any problems? Winter, along with other scientists, say they don’t.
And while natural pesticides certainly sound healthier, it again boils down to how much of a specific substance you’re ingesting. A derivative of copper, for instance, is used as a fungicide in organic farming. If ingested at inappropriate levels, it can be toxic. However, in amounts detected on food, Winter’s point is that in the amounts we’re consuming them, neither natural nor synthetic pesticides present any cause for concern.
Pesticide science is a tricky thing. Studies showing harm often look at correlations rather than causation, meaning that they don’t prove that pesticide exposure causes the health outcome detected. Some are done in agricultural workers and/or their children — people who would be exposed at much higher doses than those of us who are ingesting residue from food. (It remains on their shoes, for example, so these chemicals can contaminate their home environments.)
Still, it’s worrisome to read headlines raising concerns around pesticide risk, such as the recent study linking pesticide exposure with poorer pregnancy outcomes among women being treated for infertility. Though this may raise some red flags, Winter again takes a more scientific view. The researchers used a similar system of identifying pesticide residue as the EWG — a system that many scientists call into question because it doesn’t address actual amounts of chemicals detected. And though it didn’t make headlines, he points out that women who consumed more high-pesticide residue produce were also more likely to eat organic produce. In other words, they were eating lots of fruits and vegetables on both sides of the aisle.
If the scientific explanation isn’t reassuring enough, and if you’re among populations that may be most vulnerable to pesticide exposure (such as pregnant women, couples trying to get pregnant and very young children), some added precautions might buy you some peace of mind. The money-saving tips below can help you shop for organics.
Food production is changing for the better in some cases
I’m in favor of organic farming practices and I’m encouraged that through advancements in understanding and technology, certain food production methods are being used outside of traditional organic farms. Mary Ellen Camire, Ph.D., CFS, Fellow, Institute of Food Technologists, Professor of Food Science & Human Nutrition, School of Food & Agriculture at the University of Maine explains that many small local farms reduce the use of synthetic pesticides by applying similar practices, like using protective insects to help control for critters that are harmful or destructive. She also points out that with urban farms use hydroponic technology to produce food in greenhouses with little, if any, pesticide use.
And there has been an appropriate movement to minimize the use of pesticides in conventional farms across the United States, according to Roger Clemens, Adjunct Professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Associate Director, Regulatory Science program at University of Southern California. This is all welcome news.
Winter worries about what he calls ‘shopping cart shaming’ — or making families feel guilty or stressed out because they’re buying ordinary produce.
The real risk is not eating your fruits and veggies
All three experts say the real risk isn’t pesticide exposure, but not eating enough produce. Solid evidence points to the fact that the vast majority of Americans aren’t meeting their fruit and veggie needs. Winter worries about what he calls ‘shopping cart shaming’ — or making families feel guilty or stressed out because they’re buying ordinary produce. Or worse, steering families away from these beneficial foods. He’s right to worry: A 2016 study found that among low-income individuals, messaging about pesticide residue in fruits and veggies made them less likely to buy these nutritional powerhouses, regardless of whether they were conventional or organic.
And the EWG agrees, saying "The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables."
A 2016 study found that among low-income individuals, messaging about pesticide residue in fruits and veggies made them less likely to buy these nutritional powerhouses, regardless of whether they were conventional or organic.
What should a concerned consumer do?
It’s unrealistic for many (if not most) Americans to consume strictly organic food. So first and foremost, eat more vegetables and fruits! Whether organic or not, these foods protect you from chronic and costly conditions, like diabetes, heart disease, and certain forms of cancer.
And feel confident that no matter what type of produce you’re selecting, your food is safe. Though Camire grows some of her own produce in her organic garden in Maine, the mother and grandmother admitted that “it [organic] has not been a driving force in feeding my family over the years.”
The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.
How to shop organic on a budget
If you’re in a position of choice and want to include organic foods, here are some ways you can get the most bang for your buck:
- Start with produce and other foods your family eats most often. For example, if you’re daily milk drinkers and spinach eaters, go organic for those foods. For foods you eat far less frequently, you might be more relaxed.
- Shop for frozen, organic produce, which often comes with a lower price point, but is just as nutritious. (The same holds true for conventional produce; frozen fruits and veggeis are a good bargain!) This tactic has an additional advantage. A 2017 study found that people who eat frozen produce eat more produce in general.
- Buy organic foods in bulk. Costco and other big box stores offer great organic finds for cost-conscious shoppers who want to stock up.
- Opt for private label goods. Most supermarket chains — from Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods to Kroger and Safeway—have store brand organic offerings that are less expensive than the brand name versions they sit alongside on the shelf.
- Find more ways to save. Your supermarket’s weekly circular and social media platforms can alert you to sales so you can be on the lookout for organic price drops