When to Buy Organic Produce – The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen
As the summer comes to an end, we New Englanders will soon have to walk away from our gardens and rely on our local grocery stores for produce. Navigating food markets can be tricky and overwhelming, but with a little planning it doesn’t have to be complicated.
In this article I explain what the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen of fruits/produce is. I will tell you which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables contain the most pesticides and which contain the least amount of toxins. Next time you go food shopping, you will know which produce items should be purchased organic.
The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce
Each year, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzes pesticide residue testing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It then ranks popular fruits and vegetables with the most and least pesticide residues. This information is published in the form of The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen
In this guide, there are two categories – “The Dirty Dozen” and “The Clean Fifteen”. The Dirty Dozen lists the foods that ranked highest in pesticide residues while the Clean Fifteen classifies the foods that ranked lowest in pesticides. It is recommended that to ensure the lowest possible exposure to pesticides, you should always buy foods off the Dirty Dozen list organically grown whenever possible.
Note: The fruits and vegetables on these lists were washed with high-power pressure water systems before being tested.
Below is a visual representation I made of the EWG’s report for 2014. The column on the left represents the Dirty Dozen produce while the column on the right lists the Clean Fifteen fruits and vegetables. Again, the foods grouped in the first column should be bought organic while the ones ranked on the right can be purchased non-organic.
The Dirty Dozen
According to the EWG, each of the foods in the Dirty Dozen contained a number of different pesticide residues and showed very high concentrations of pesticides relative to other produce items. All foods are listed from worst to best (lower numbers = more pesticides).
The Dirty Dozen, Plus
- Sweet Bell Peppers
- Nectarines – Imported
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Snap Peas – Imported
- *Hot Peppers
- *Kale/Collard Greens
*These “plus” items did not meet the regular guidelines for the Dirty Dozen list, but were added because they contained pesticides that are highly toxic to the human nervous system. EWG recommends that people who eat a lot of these foods should buy organic instead.
According to the EWG website:
- Every sample of imported nectarines and 99 percent of apple samples tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
- The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other food.
- A single grape sample contained 15 pesticides.
- Single samples of celery, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.
The Clean Fifteen
The Clean Fifteen ranks the produce least likely to hold pesticide residues. Relatively few pesticides were detected on these fruits and vegetables, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticides. All foods are listed from best to worst (higher numbers = fewer traces of pesticides).
The Clean Fifteen
- *Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas, Frozen
- Sweet Potatoes
*An unknown percentage of sweet corn on grocery store shelves is genetically modified/engineered (GMO/GE) as is most Hawaiian papaya. The United States does not have a law that requires the labeling of genetically engineered produce, and because of this, if you want to avoid GE produce, you should purchase organically-grown fruits and vegetables or foods that have the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label.
According to the EWG website:
Avocados were the cleanest: only 1 percent of avocado samples showed any detectable pesticides.
Some 89 percent of pineapples, 82 percent of kiwi, 80 percent of papayas, 88 percent of mango and 61 percent of cantaloupe had no residues.
Detecting multiple pesticide residues is extremely rare on Clean Fifteen™ vegetables. Only 5.5 percent of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.
No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen™ tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
Use the PLU codes to help you differentiate between organic and conventional produce
The stickers found on fruits and vegetables contain 4-5 digit numbers known as Price Look-Up (PLU) codes. These codes are used by stores to identify produce and to distinguish between conventionally-grown, genetically-modified (GMO) and organic products.
- A 4-digit PLU code starting with a 3 or 4 (3xxx or 4xxx) = conventionally-grown.
- A 5-digit PLU code starting with a 9 (9xxxx) = organically-grown.
- A 5-digit PLU code starting with an 8 (8xxxx) = genetically-modified.
Read more here: “What do the PLU codes on fruits and vegetables mean?”
Please share your thoughts
When grocery shopping, I do my best to follow the EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. Do you? Why or why not? How do you navigate the produce aisle at the grocery store? Do you purchase organic fruits and vegetables? Did you find this article to be helpful? Please share your comments below this post. Thank you and I look forward to hearing from you!
- EWG’s 2014 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. Retrieved September 12, 2014, from http://www.ewg.org/foodnews/
When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.