The EWG Dirty Dozen, Produce Washes, and More: How to Reduce Pesticides in Your Food

ewg dirty dozen strawberries in bowl

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 is far from 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, I invite you to join my online program the Healthy Home Method. It’s your step-by-step roadmap to help you reduce toxins in each room of your home without going crazy. It’s only for those serious about taking control of their long-term health – if that’s you, click here to learn more.

mini mioche and More: Organic Kids’ Clothes You’ll Love

Organic kids' clothes

You know about organic food, but did you know you can get organic clothing too?

Organic clothing, especially for kids, is increasing in popularity – even big brands like Costco’s Kirkland label and H&M sell organic. But what do those labels really mean, and are they worth it? Let’s take a look.

Why Organic?

Many proponents of organic clothes focus on the benefits from organic cotton. Cotton is one of the most pesticide intensive crops, and requires a substantial amount of water. Whether those pesticides remain on your t-shirt or not is up for debate, but environmentally, organic farming practices are likely better for the environment.

Eco-friendly fabrics are also available for those looking for a cotton alternative:

  • Bamboo is a renewable resource, but often will be treated with chemicals during manufacture. It’s a good option environmentally, but may be questionable from a chemical exposure perspective.
  • Tencel is a brand name of a newer textile called lyocell. It is made from wood pulp in an environmentally-friendly process, but may still involve chemical treatments during manufacture.
  • Hemp is the latest and greatest eco fabric. It can be grown in colder climates than cotton and bamboo (you can find Canadian-grown hemp). Many products will be made dye-free or with non-toxic dyes (though check the specific product to be sure).

Organic Clothing Labels

A product may use organic fabric, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the dyes used. You can look for a finished product that is GOTS certified if you want to use less-toxic dyes, but this can be a challenge. A product can still be labelled organic even if only the cotton is organic, it just won’t carry the GOTS seal on the label (unless it’s with a statement saying “made with GOTS organic certified cotton”).

It should be noted that it is likely cost prohibitive for a small clothing company to certify each piece of clothing. This is likely one reason why it’s more common to find clothes simply made with organic cotton then those that carry the GOTS label.

Organic Kids’ Clothing Brands

If you’re on the hunt for organic clothing, here are some reputable and local brands that parents love. If you’re lucky enough to snag these up at your local consignment store, I say go for it! But you can get them online and in some brick-and-mortar stores too.

mini mioche

mini mioche is a popular brand, and for good reason! Founded by a mom in Toronto, all of the clothes are made in Canada using GOTS certified organic cotton yarn. It doesn’t appear to be fully GOTS certified, but they do claim that “fabrics are dyed using low-impact, non-toxic, re-usable dyes.” You can find mini mioche in their own stores on Queen West and the Distillery District in Toronto. And, of course, online.

Ollie Jones

Handmade in Toronto, Ollie Jones is a great option for those looking to support local. You can find adorable prints and styles made with GOTS certified cotton and water-based dyes. Again, not fully GOTS certified, but a step in the right direction.

Parade Organics

Parade Organics kids’ clothes are fully GOTS certified organic. They are made in India (where the cotton comes from) under fair trade conditions. Parade Organics is a Canadian company with a brick and mortar shop in Vancouver. You can also find Parade more readily in boutique baby stores across Canada, which makes them a little more accessible as far as organic clothing goes.

Pingo Apparel

I was recently introduced to the Pingo Apparel online shop specializing in organic clothes with fun patterns that kids are sure to love. They even have a page where you can purchase pre-loved clothes – how cool is that?! Read their blog post on building a more eco-friendly and ethical kids’ wardrobe on a budget for more ideas too.

Modern Rascals

This Toronto-based online shop offers European brands of kids’ clothes that are fun and practical at the same time. Most of the brands use GOTS certified organic cotton, and some of the lines are fully GOTS certified. The prints are gorgeous, and not your typical “boys” and “girls” stereotypes. While these clothes may have a larger ecological footprint than those made and sold in Canada, Modern Rascals offers a great collection for ethical and sustainable fashion.

 

Do you have a favourite brand that makes and sells certified organic kids’ clothes? Comment below with your favourites!