The Dirty Dozen and The Fresh Fifteen

Close-up of strawberries growing
Michael Möller/EyeEm/Getty Images

Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles a list of 49 types of produce and rates the level of pesticide residues they contain. All produce is pressure washed before testing. While the list changes slightly from one year to the next, certain things are consistent: the shiny apples you see lined up in bright rows in your supermarket are amongst the most poisonous foods available when they are not organically grown. Little did Snow White know that her local market would carry ammunition for the wicked queen! Berries and leafy greens, as well as stone fruits and grapes consistently show up on this list. The “fresh” or “clean” fifteen are an interesting mix of thick-skinned fruits and vegetables –like avocado, pineapple, melon, sweet corn, and sweet peas- with some surprisingly delicate foods like kiwi and asparagus. EWG’s list as of 2013 was as follows:

The Dirty Dozen:

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Grapes (imported)
  • Red, orange and yellow sweet bell peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Blueberries
  • Lettuce
  • Kale/collard greens

We would add spinach, all berries, bananas, cucumbers, green beans, cilantro, basil, all leafy greens, carrots, cherries, coffee, tomatoes and pears to this list. Some of these move on and off the dirty dozen, and some (like coffee) are not widely regulated. Carrots grow underground –therefore absorbing any toxins in the soil- and are a vegetable our kids tend to eat a lot of. Also, make sure your meat, milk/butter/cream/ice cream; soy, nuts, applesauce (this should be a no-brainer), juices and rice are organic as well.

There is a strange land in the middle of these two camps, and I’m inclined to tread cautiously here. Members of the brassica family –like broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts are generally repellant to insects and consequently are not heavily sprayed, but I’d be inclined to buy these organic or from small farmers who are attuned to such things. Similarly, leeks, garlic, and green onions are natural pest repellents, so buying these conventional is likely safe.

The Clean Fifteen:

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn (non-GMO)
  • Pineapple
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mango
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (domestic-Mexican cantaloupe is very heavily sprayed)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

If you buy from your local farmer’s market, talk with vendors. Many farms can’t afford to go through the very expensive process of organic certification but have sustainable growing practices. For example, we buy fruit from an orchard that’s been in business for several generations. They grow stone fruits, citrus, pomegranates, berries, grapes, figs and more. They are not certified organic but use non-toxic sprays made from seaweed and have been using the stuff for 60 years. The fruit itself is never directly sprayed and is some of the best we’ve ever eaten. Most farmers take tremendous pride in their (very hard) work and are happy to talk about their growing practices. If you ask questions and a grower is dismissive or says “oh yeah, we’re organic” without signage or some explanation to back themselves up, keep moving. Unfortunately, there are a very few disreputable types who infiltrate farmer’s markets and pass themselves off as something they’re not.

The good news, though, is that most small farmers use far less spray than the big farms. If you want to ask questions, try to go during a slower hour when there will be an opportunity to talk. The decisions you make about food impact you, your children, and your children’s children. Let’s start today by making good ones! For more information about this year’s list, see The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen.