Foods With Pesticide Residue
The benefits of eating organic food go straight to the farm, where no pesticides and chemical fertilizers are used to grow the organic produce shipped to grocers. That means workers and farm neighbors aren’t exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, it means less fossil fuel converted into fertilizers and it means healthier soil that should sustain crops for generations to come.
For individuals, organic food also has benefits. Eating organic means avoiding the pesticide residue left on foods, and it may even mean more nutritious varietals, though research into that subject has yielded mixed results. While there are few if any proven health impacts from consuming trace quantities of pesticides on foods, a growing number of people take the precaution of avoiding exposure just in case, particularly in the cases of pregnant women (growing babies are exposed to most of the chemicals that mom consume) and the parents of young children.
But organic food can cost more, meaning many families are loathe to shell out the extra cash for organic produce on every shopping trip. That’s what makes the Environmental Working Group’s annual list of the dirty dozen foods so useful. The group analyzes Department of Agriculture data about pesticide residue and ranks foods based on how much or little pesticide residue they have. The group estimates that individuals can reduce their exposure by 80% if they switch to organic when buying these 12 foods.
The USDA and farm and food industry representatives are quick to remind consumers that the government sets allowable pesticide residue limits it deems safe, and the produce for sale in your grocery store should meet those standards. Watchdogs like Environmental Working Group see those limits as too liberal, and see the dirty dozen list as a teaching tool to educate consumers about the benefits of organic food.
Even Environmental Working Group says that the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables outweighs the known risks of consuming pesticide residue. At TheDailyGreen.com, we always favor educating consumers so that we can make the decision for ourselves.
Note: The 2011 dirty dozen list reflects testing data from the 2010 harvest, and because some pesticide use is dependent on weather conditions that vary by farm, it may not reflect the pesticide residue on produce in your grocery store. That’s why we include not only those fruits and vegetables on Environmental Working Group’s current list, but produce that has made the list in the past, as well as information about pesticides used to produce meat, dairy and some other favorite foods that aren’t on Environmental Working Group’s latest dirty dozen list. In general, tree fruits, berries, leafy greens dominate the list. Since the USDA tests produce after a typical household preparation, fruits and vegetables with thick skins that are removed before eating (melons, avocado, corn, etc.) tend to have the lowest amounts of pesticide residue. If you don’t see a favorite food here, check Whats On My Food, a project of the Pesticide Action Network that makes the same USDA pesticide residue testing data available in an easy-to-use database.
Topping the 2011 dirty dozen list is a tree fruit that always makes the list: Apples. (Apples ranked No. 2 in 2009 and No. 4 in 2010.) more than 40 different pesticides have been detected on apples, because fungus and insect threats prompt farmers to spray various chemicals on their orchards. Not surprisingly, pesticide residue is also found in apple juice and apple sauce, making all apple products smart foods to buy organic.
Some recommend peeling apples to reduce exposure to pesticide residue, but be aware that you’re peeling away many of the fruit’s most beneficial nutrients when you do so!
Can’t find organic apples? Safer alternatives include watermelon, bananas and tangerines.
Another perennial food on the dirty dozen list is celery. It’s a good one to commit to memory, since it doesn’t fit the three main categories of foods with the highest pesticide residue (tree fruits, berries and leafy greens). USDA tests have found more than 60 different pesticides on celery.
Can’t find organic celery? Safer alternatives with a similar crunch include broccoli, radishes and onions.
Strawberries are always on the list of dirty dozen foods, in part because fungus prompts farmers to spray, and pesticide residue remains on berries sold at market. Nearly 60 different pesticides have been found on strawberries, though fewer are found on frozen strawberries.
Can’t find organic strawberries? Safer alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.
6. Nectarines (Imported)
Nectarines, at least imported ones, are among the most highly contaminated tree fruits. Domestic nectarines don’t test with as much pesticide residue, but overall33 pesticides have been detected on nectarines.
Can’t find organic nectarines? Try pineapple, papaya or mango.
7. Grapes (Imported)
8. Sweet Bell Peppers
Another fruit that usually makes the dirty dozen list because it tends to have high pesticide residue is the sweet bell pepper, in all of its colorful varieties. Nearly 50 different pesticides have been detected on sweet bell peppers.
America’s favorite vegetable is the potato; unfortunately, more than 35 pesticides have been detected on potatoes in USDA testing. Sweet potatoes offer a delicious alternative with less chance of pesticide residue.
Blueberries usually make the dirty dozen list, since more than 50 pesticides have been detected as residue on them. Frozen blueberries have proved somewhat less contaminated. Unfortunately, obvious alternatives like cranberries and cherries, while they may not make the dirty dozen list this year, are often contaminated themselves. For breakfast cereal, if you can’t find blueberries, consider topping with bananas.
Joining spinach in the leafy greens category, lettuce makes the list of dirty dozen foods with the most pesticides. More than 50 pesticides have been identified on lettuce. If you can’t find organic lettuce, alternatives include asparagus.
12. Kale (Tie)
A superfood, traditionally kale is known as a hardier vegetable that rarely suffers from pests and disease, but it was found to have high amounts of pesticide residue when tested in each of the past two years.
Can’t find organic kale? Safer alternatives include cabbage, asparagus and broccoli. Dandelion greens also make a nutritious alternative.
12. Collard Greens (Tie)
Put on par wit kale for the 2011 dirty dozen list, collard greens tests have revealed more than 45 pesticides. Alternatives include Brussels sprouts, dandelion greens and cabbage.
13. Fatty Meats
While it doesn’t make the list of dirty dozen foods, meat makes our list. While there are generally no pesticides found in beef muscle, fat is another story. Fewer than a dozen pesticides have been detected in beef fat, but among them are long-lived chemicals that accumulate in human fats just as they do in beef cattle. The same pattern holds for other meats, with pork fat and chicken thighs tallying the most pesticide residue, while lean meat comes up clean.
Pesticides and other man-made chemicals have been found in human breast milk, so it should come as no surprise that they have been found in dairy products, too. Twelve different pesticides have been identified in milk, and milk is of special concern because it is a staple of a child’s diets.
While the watchdog lists don’t include data on coffee, many of the coffee beans we buy are grown in countries with lax regulations for use of pesticides. Look for the USDA Organic label to ensure you’re not buying beans that have been grown or processed with the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Go a step or two further, and look for the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance (or Bird Friendly) labels to ensure that your purchase supports farmers who are paid fairly and treated well. And look for shade-grown (Rainforest Alliance- or Bird Friendly-certified) varieties for the trifecta; that way you know the coffee is being grown under the canopy of the rainforest, leaving those ancient trees intact, along with the wildlife – particularly songbirds – that call them home.
Similarly to coffee, there’s no watchdog reporting on pesticides found in wine, but grapes are among the crops that are typically heavily doused with pesticides to ward off fungus and bugs. Fortunately, there are more and more fine organic wines on the market. Many will be labeled “made with organic grapes,” rather than “organic wine” because winemakers add sulfites as a preservative to allow for long-distance shipping.
See our favorite organic wines.
Like coffee beans, cocoa beans are grown across the developing world, sometimes in countries without strict laws governing use of pesticides, worker rights or other factors we’d consider basic in the U.S. Buying organic chocolate ensures your sweet treat isn’t harming the environment or workers elsewhere.
Buy the Clean 15
If the cost of buying all organic isn’t within your budget, fear not. Check out The Daily Green’s list of fruit and vegetables so clean of pesticides you don’t have to buy organic. (Of course, buying organic is always a good choice for the health of farms and farm workers, regardless of the residue left on the end product.) The feature also includes tips for buying, cleaning, storing and using each fruit and vegetable – as well as delicious recipes! Here’s a look at the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Clean 15 list:
2. Sweet Corn
4. Avocado Avocado
6. Sweet peas
9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
13. Sweet Potatoes