Almost everyone has heard of the “Clean Fifteen”, EWG’s list of the least pesticide laden produce.
Every year the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes out with a list of fifty produce items and ranks them from those with the most pesticides to the least.
The fifteen least contaminated are known as the Clean Fifteen. The twelve most contaminated are called the Dirty Dozen. Clever right?
I guess the other 21 fell into some sort of produce purgatory, neither “good” nor “bad”.
The Clean Fifteen, not so clean
The truth is I’m tired of seeing another regurgitated article about the Clean Fifteen list advising readers that they don’t need to buy organic.
Really? Says who?
As a health coach specializing in helping people get the harmful toxins out of their lives I’m frustrated by this myth that fewer pesticides are somehow safer. They aren’t.
And if you’re not convinced how horrific pesticides are check out my post, 35 Ways Pesticides Are Destroying Your Health.
So what went wrong here?
In all likelihood a blogger found the list, spun it into a quick post declaring, you don’t need to “waste” money on these items because they are after all the “Clean Fifteen” and poof everyone’s happy.
Well no, not really. There’s more to it than that.
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE EWG. Their work is extraordinary. This campaign to educate consumers has been very effective. It is great marketing, it also give consumers a chance to be conscious of the most pesticide laden foods and helps consumers avoid them. This is all great stuff. Applause all around.
So while I applaud EWG’s extraordinary effort to bring this information to the hands of consumers, I also caution everyone against the false sense (perpetuated more by uninformed bloggers than by the EWG itself) that fewer pesticides are somehow safe.
Less toxic does not equal safe. And that’s where I worry that relying heavily on this notion that anything not on the Dirty Dozen list is somehow safe is actually quite dangerous.The clean 15 isn't 'pesticide free' as so many people think. Fewer pesticides do not mean toxin-free.Click To Tweet
For example strawberries earn the top spot for most contaminated item on the list. Strawberries have been found to have 45 pesticide residues (source)! Let me say that again, 45 pesticides!
Do you agree eleven pesticides is “clean”?
No one is going to argue strawberries deserve their place at the top of the Dirty Dozen list. But cabbage which ranks number 47 (as in least contaminated out of 50) or number four on the Clean Fifteen has 11 pesticides! (source)
Eleven! That doesn’t seem all that “clean” to me! (again this isn’t a jab at EWG, they are simply making a list of data and indeed cabbage does have fewer pesticides when compared to other items on the list).
Out of those eleven pesticides on cabbage two are known or probable carcinogens, three are suspected hormone disruptors, five are neurotoxins, and one is a developmental or reproductive toxin.
I don’t know about you but eleven types of pesticides aren’t something I want to feed my child.
Organic isn’t perfect but it is a lot better
This is why I always suggest eating organic when possible.
And yes you should absolutely avoid the non-organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, but you also need to know what you are getting when eating anything non-organic, including the Clean Fifteen.
And that’s not to say organic is perfect, thanks to cross contamination (either at the farm or in processing) and fraud there are sometimes detectable amounts of pesticides on organic produce as well.
However, in general organic produce has substantially less contamination and is obviously much better for bees, butterflies, farm workers, water systems, and the environment.
I believe the best choices are growing your own produce and buying from local trusted farmers (either directly from an organic farm or from a farmer’s market). If you can’t do that then buying certified organic produce is the next best.
If you need tips on how to eat healthy on a budget check out my post, 12 Simple Ways to Eat Healthy on a Budget.
A list with more data so you can make a better decision
So to help you make sense of all this, and avoid hours of research, I made a list so you can make educated choices for yourself.
Here is a list of the 50 produce items on EWG’s full list, along with the detected amounts of pesticides provided by the Pesticide Action Network.
The list is in the same order as presented on the EWG website with number one being their most contaminated and number 50 being their least contaminated.
Links for each item are provided.
- Strawberries – 45 pesticide residues
- Apples – 47 pesticide residues
- Nectarines – 33 pesticide residues
- Peaches – 62 pesticide residues
- Celery – 64 pesticide residues
- Grapes – 56 pesticide residues
- Cherries – 42 pesticide residues
- Spinach – 54 pesticide residues
- Tomatoes – 35 pesticide residues
- Sweet bell peppers – 53 pesticide residues
- Cherry tomatoes – 69 pesticide residues
- Cucumbers – 86 pesticide residues
- Snap peas (imported on EWG list) – 78 pesticide residues (domestic or imported not noted)
- Blueberries (domestic on EWG) – 52 pesticide residues (domestic or imported not noted)
- Potatoes – 35 pesticide residues
- Hot peppers – 75 pesticide residues
- Lettuce – 52 pesticide residues
- Kale/Collard greens – 55 pesticide residues/45 pesticide residues
- Blueberries imported – not differentiated on PAN, see blueberries above
- Green beans – 44 pesticide residues
- Plums – 44 pesticide residues
- Pears – 40 pesticide residues
- Raspberries – not noted on PAN
- Carrots – 26 pesticide residues
- Winter squash – 64 pesticide residues
- Tangerines – 14 pesticide residues
- Summer squash – 40 pesticide residues
- Snap peas (domestic on EWG) – 78 pesticide residues (domestic or imported not noted on PAN)
- Green onions – 31 pesticide residues
- Bananas – 11 pesticide residues
- Oranges – 12 pesticide residues
- Watermelon – 26 pesticide residues
- Broccoli – 33 pesticide residues
- Sweet potatoes – 19 pesticide residue
- Mushrooms – 11 pesticide residues
- Cauliflower – 15 pesticide residues
- Cantaloupe – 17 pesticide residues
- Grapefruit – 11 pesticide residues
- Honeydew melon – not listed in PAN
- Eggplant – 18 pesticide residues
- Kiwi – not listed
- Papaya – 7 pesticide residues
- Mangos – 11 pesticide residues
- Asparagus – 9 pesticide residues
- Onions – not listed
- Sweet frozen peas – 12 pesticide residues
- Cabbage – 11 pesticide residues
- Pineapple – 6 pesticide residues
- Sweetcorn – 3 pesticide residues
- Avocados – 1 pesticide residue
There you are, a full list of the 50 produce items noted on the EWG list with the data for the quantity of actual detected pesticide residues so YOU can make informed choices.
If you want to know more about the methodology and the types of pesticides click on the links for each food.
Important note: Pesticide residue data is taken from Pesticide Action Network who has taken on the tedious task of compiling the data and presenting it in an easy to read format for consumers. The PAN database is taken from the USDA Pesticide Data Program. The data I was able to collect from PAN was taken mostly from 2012-2014 (each link cites the individual data sources). The EWG data is from the 2016 list. So keep in mind the comparisons are not from the exact same years. Also keep in mind different crops from different places and harvested at different times will have varying levels and types of pesticides. None of this data is perfect, but it does make the point that fewer pesticides do not mean toxin-free. I will update this post when the new data is available.
If you need some direction on eating healthy read my post, The Beginner’s Guide to Clean Eating for more.
Remember this isn’t about shaming anyone or making anyone feel inferior. It’s all about educating you so you can then make solid choices.
One last thing, as for the bloggers perpetuating the myth that the foods on the Clean Fifteen are somehow pesticide-free, I don’t believe they are writing this stuff maliciously. I get that EWG is a frequently cited authority and when EWG says “clean” it’s easy to forget the name is clever marketing rather than a statement about the quantity of pesticides.
Frankly it’s a good reminder that as bloggers and health coaches we have to take our task of delivering quality content seriously…so YOU can have the best information!
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