It’s that time of year again… when eco-bloggers go nuts over the EWG Dirty Dozen list and no doubt will share headlines like your “strawberries are doused in toxic pesticides giving you cancer with every bite…” OK, maybe they don’t go that far. But some of the articles that I’m sure will come out over this time will sound pretty close.
Before you check out this year’s Dirty Dozen list (spoiler alert: the big shake-up this year is raisins), I want to share what the Dirty Dozen actually means, does it matter, and how else you can take informed actions to reduce pesticides in your food.
Because while tools like the Dirty Dozen can certainly be part of your strategy to lower your exposure to toxins, it’s pointless if you don’t understand what it means.
Let’s get to it then, shall we?
What is the EWG Dirty Dozen?
Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit out of the US, publishes its ranking of produce and pesticide residues in its Dirty Dozen & Clean Fifteen lists.
The “dirty dozen” are the produce that have the highest amount of pesticide residues. Then there’s a group in the middle, and the “clean fifteen” which have the lowest amount of pesticide residues.
How the Dirty Dozen Works
To come up with their Dirty Dozen list, the EWG uses data from USDA and FDA sampling. The USDA selects which specific types of produce will be tested each year, so there isn’t annual data for everything. Produce is tested as it would normally be eaten – for example, apples are washed under water and oranges are peeled.
The EWG takes the most recent 1 – 2 years of sampling data per type of produce – in some cases, this data could be up to 10 years old.
In 2019, kale was moved up in the dirty dozen ranking and EWG used it as their big headline and hook to get people talking about the list. However, kale hadn’t been tested by the FDA for several years. So the reality is that although it was farther down the list in previous years, the pesticide content likely was the same or similar in 2017 and 2018.
The government studies also don’t account for all pesticides – according to the EWG, even glyphosate, one of the most widely used pesticides, isn’t tested for. (I wrote about glyphosate in our food here.)
To compare foods, EWG looks at various measures of pesticide contamination:
- Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides.
- Percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides.
- Average number of pesticides found on a single sample.
- Average amount of pesticides found, measured in parts per million.
- Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample.
- Total number of pesticides found on the crop.
The produce is ranked against each of these criteria using equal weighting, and given a score. These scores are used to come up with the best and worst when it comes to pesticide residues. You can read about their full process here.
How to Use the EWG Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Lists
Is the Dirty Dozen a conclusive or a perfect system? Absolutely not. You’ll find no shortage of articles debunking it. But as long as you understand its limitations, it can still be used as a simple way to help avoid decision fatigue and prioritize where you’re spending your money.
It can be a way to help you prioritize certified organic purchases where they’re more likely to have an impact on your exposure to certain pesticides.
And yes, before you jump at me saying that organic farmers use pesticides too, I am well aware. But they aren’t allowed to use some of the most problematic pesticides like hormone disrupting atrazine or carcinogenic glyphosate.
What About Produce Washes? Can You Remove Pesticides That Way?
I get asked quite often how I wash my produce. And this will probably disappoint you, but I just wash them under cold water. Mostly because there’s only so much time in the day and I’d rather find it easier to eat fresh fruits and vegetables than reach for something less healthy.
The truth is, no one method will remove 100% of pesticide residues.
Rinsing with regular water has been shown to be effective on certain pesticides, but not all. And it’s mostly the mechanical process of rubbing the fruits under water (some say it should be for 2mins).
Other methods that have been shown to be effective on certain fruits and veggies with specific pesticides are soaking in a solution of baking soda and water for 15mins and soaking in 10% vinegar for 20mins.
These studies had several limitations, but if you don’t mind the extra time or effort, the strategies certainly don’t hurt. However, soaking and washing don’t remove the pesticides that soak into the fruit (another reason to opt for organic where you can).
Fruit and veggie washes typically use surfactants to help loosen dirt, wax, and germs from the produce. But they haven’t been standardized or tested fully so it’s hard to know how good a job they do on pesticides. The FDA doesn’t recommend them because they can leave residue on the food.
How Else Can you Reduce Pesticides
Some studies have shown that pesticides in some foods are reduced through cooking, so prioritizing organic for raw foods may be one way to lower your exposure (though cooking changes the nutrition quality so you still want to be getting some raw fruits and veggies in your diet!).
You can also use a course brush on thicker-skinned fruits and vegetables like potatoes, cucumber, etc.
And finally, always wash your produce, even if you’re going to peel it anyways.
If you’re starting to read all the horror stories about the EWG Dirty Dozen and are worried about your own pesticide intake, I hope this helps you navigate the landscape more confidently! You can read more on whether organic produce is worth it in this article.
If you want to learn how to lower your toxic load with strategic product swaps and habits, The Healthy Home Collective might be for you! It’s your step-by-step roadmap to reduce toxins in each room of your home without going crazy. Click here to learn more.