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Should You Use the Dirty Dozen List to Shop for Produce?

Ask Keri: Should I use the Dirty Dozen list to pick produce at the grocery store?

Keri Says: Overall, I think the Dirty Dozen is a resource to help people who are shopping on a budget avoid pesticide residues on their produce. However, there are some flaws to consider while consulting it.

What is the Dirty Dozen?

The Dirty Dozen is an annual report released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) that ranks conventional (not organic) fruits and vegetables based on the amount of pesticide residue found on each. The information is based on more than 40,000 produce samples tested (after having been washed) by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

RELATED: Grass-fed Beef vs. Organic Beef: Which Is Healthier?

The 12 fruits and veggies found to consistently have the most pesticide residue are put on the Dirty Dozen list, while those found to have the least residue get a spot on the opposite list, the Clean Fifteen.

Healthy favorites such as strawberries, spinach, and kale top the 2022 Dirty Dozen list because they were found to be contaminated with a particularly toxic pesticide called DCPA, or Dacthal.

dirty dozen


What to Consider When Using the Lists

Before we get into the lists, let’s touch on the flaws, because this definitely isn’t a perfect system. First of all, any produce is pretty much always better than no produce at all. If all you’ve got is a conventional apple, that’s a better choice for a snack than organic cream-filled cookies any day. There may also be flaws to the ranking system itself.

This analysis doesn’t take into consideration exactly what chemicals are detected and just how harmful they might be. The other reality is, pesticide residue tends to be pretty low, even on the highest-ranking produce. In a USDA and FDA analysis, over 99% of produce sampled had pesticide residues far below Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) safety levels.

So, do we completely throw these lists out the window? Not necessarily, as they can still be a useful guide to shopping. As we aim to eat more organic produce, this list still gives us the best place to start. But let’s reiterate again: most people need to eat more produce overall, conventional or organic. Only about 1 in 10 adults is eating 1½ to 2 cups of fruit and 2 to 3 cups of vegetables per day.

And the last note: always wash all produce before eating. OK, here are the lists:

EWG’s 2022 Dirty Dozen

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

EWG’s 2022 Clean Fifteen

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. Mushrooms
12. Cantaloupe
13. Mangoes
14. Watermelon
15. Sweet potatoes

RELATED: 5 Organic-ish Food Labels You Should Know About

The bottom line? Buy organic produce as much as you possibly can and if you can’t do it all the time, use the Dirty Dozen as a reference point. And wherever you’re at, getting lots of produce on your plate, conventional or organic, should be your No. 1 priority.

Editor’s note: This post was updated in May 2022.

(Photos: Shutterstock)

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