Even with anxiety and stress already high due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) still found it necessary to release its annual Dirty Dozen list yesterday. It lists the 12 fruits vegetables that allegedly have the highest levels of pesticide residues. But it’s actually just a thinly veiled attempt to create fear of conventionally grown produce and steer folks to buying expensive, organic produce. NEWS FLASH: organic farmers can and do use pesticides, natural and approved synthetic ones. FACT: pesticide residues on all produce – organic and conventional - are very low, if measurable at all.
Yesterday’s new list was identical to last year’s, same foods in the same order. While coronavirus news garners the lion’s share of headlines today, I did find a few inflammatory Dirty Dozen headlines on the second and third page of a Google search, “Strawberries Top the EWG's 2020 Dirty Dozen List” and “These 12 Foods Are Most Likely to Carry Pesticide Residue.” This one was actually a bit surprising: “Here are the ‘dirty dozen’ fruit and vegetables laced with legal pesticides — even organics have traces.” Key words here are “traces” and “organics.” So let’s take a closer look beyond the sensational headlines for a few things you need to keep in mind.
First, pesticide residues on conventionally grown produce are tested annually by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), with the results published in their Pesticide Data Program Annual Summary. In the most recent 2018 report, USDA found that “more than 99% of the samples tested had pesticide residues well below benchmark levels established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA sets these benchmarks to ensure that pesticide residues remain at levels that EPA has determined to be safe in or on foods for human consumption.” And 48% of the samples tested had no detectable pesticide residue at all.
Second, as I previously mentioned and contrary to popular belief, organic farmers do use pesticides. Many are natural pesticides (but still kill insects and weeds) like sulfur, bicarbonate, copper and vinegar but also include synthetic pesticides approved for organic use. While organic produce is not regularly tested for pesticide residues, in 2010 the National Organic Program worked with the USDA to evaluate pesticide residues on 571 domestic and foreign fruit and vegetable samples bearing the USDA organic seal. The report revealed that 96% of the samples tested met the USDA organic regulations, with 57% showing no detectable residues and 39% with residues less than 5% of the EPA allowable level.
The fact is you have nothing to fear from eating any type of produce. All pesticide residues on fruits and vegetables, whether organically or conventionally grown, are extremely low and well below any level that could put you at risk. And according to University of California Berkeley Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Dr. Bruce Ames, 99.99% of the pesticides we eat are naturally present in plants to ward off insects and other predators. That means only 0.01% of ingested pesticides are synthetic.
So how does the Environmental Working Group come up with the data in its report that leads consumers to assume their produce is laden with pesticide residues? Believe it or not, they use the data in the USDA report mentioned above! Unfortunately, they misrepresent the data. How? They rank the fruits and vegetables in order of the pesticide residues found, from the highest to lowest amounts. Then they label the top twelve as “The Dirty Dozen.” But, as I explained earlier, the residue levels are extremely low and 99% of the samples tested fell well below the tolerance levels and 48% had no detectable pesticide residues. And two PhD toxicologists debunked the methodology the EWG uses to create this list in their research article in the Journal of Toxicology.
To put the EWG’s method into perspective, consider this comparison to National Merit Scholars. Most of us know these are very smart high school students who scored highly on the qualifying PSAT/NMSQT exam. So, imagine taking the list of National Merit Scholars for this year and ranking them according to their exam scores from highest to lowest and then taking the bottom twelve and calling them “The Dumbest Dozen.”
If you look deep into the EWG website you’ll find this disclaimer, “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables.” Of course, this statement never makes it into the articles with the sensational headlines. The EWG is not a research or academic institution with independent scientists. It is an activist group with some funding from the organic industry. In a survey of the scientist members of the Society of Toxicology, 79% say EWG overstates the health risk of chemicals.
According to a 2019 survey from the Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), there was almost unanimous agreement among registered dietitians that it is important for consumers to know that conventionally grown produce is safe because not all people can afford to buy organic. They also believe that inaccurate, fear-based messages cause consumers to question whether eating conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables is safe.
Want to find out how many servings of a particular fruit or vegetable you could eat and still not have any adverse effects from pesticide residues? Check out the Pesticide Residue Calculator on the Safe Fruits and Veggies website. It turns out an adult woman would have to eat 453 servings of strawberries, 773 servings of spinach, 3,344 servings of organic lettuce or 4159 servings of conventional lettuce in one day without any effect, even if they had the highest pesticide residues level ever recorded by USDA for these foods.
If you’re still concerned, keep in mind that you should always wash your fruits and vegetables. Produce is grown in fields with soil. Many hands touch the produce from the time it leaves the field until it gets into your kitchen. From farmworkers to produce packers to supermarket employees to other customers, many bacteria-laden hands have landed on your fruits and veggies. While the main reason to wash it is to get rid of dirt and bacteria, it can also eliminate any tiny amounts of pesticide residues if they are even present.
Over 90% of people in the U.S. don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables so we should not be doing anything to discourage folks from enjoying any type of produce they like to eat, whether it is conventional, organic, fresh, frozen, canned, dried or juice. They all count toward your daily recommended fruit and veggie intake, are nutrient-rich and make you look and feel good. So, relax and enjoy the taste and fun of filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables. And for more information about fruits and vegetables and delicious ways to enjoy them, check out the Produce for Better Health Have A Plant website.
MS, RDN, LD, FAND
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