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).
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.
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
3. Kale, collard and mustard greens
7. Bell and hot peppers
EWG’s 2022 Clean Fifteen
2. Sweet corn
6. Sweet peas (frozen)
8. Honeydew melon
15. Sweet potatoes
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.
The Nutritious Life Editors are a team of healthy lifestyle enthusiasts who not only subscribe to — and live! — the 8 Pillars of a Nutritious Life, but also have access to some of the savviest thought leaders in the health and wellness space — including our founder and resident dietitian, Keri Glassman. From the hottest trends in wellness to the latest medical science, we stay on top of it all in order to deliver the info YOU need to live your most nutritious life.
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