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Nutrition Experts Question Validity Of 'The Dirty Dozen List'

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Key Takeaways

  • Every spring, the Environmental Working Group shares a list of the top 12 produce selections that have the most pesticide residue.
  • However, experts say that it's unlikely that the amount of pesticide residue found on produce will cause harm as long as they are eaten in appropriate quantities. 
  • Since 1 in 10 Americans does not meet the recommended intake of produce, experts support eating any fruit and vegetables to reduce the risk of experiencing nutritional gaps. 

Every year, the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) "Dirty Dozen" list is released just as spring produce starts appearing on grocery store shelves. You may second-guess your choices if you see your favorite fruit or vegetable on the list—especially if you opt for conventionally grown produce instead of organic varieties.

However, experts question the validity of the list. They also point out that since many Americans do not eat enough produce to reap the nutritional benefits, a list that discourages consumption of fruits and vegetables may do more harm than good.

Who Is the EWG?

The EWG describes itself as "a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment."  It is partially funded by brands that manufacture organic foods.

The EWG states that its mission is "to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment." However, experts have questioned the methods that they use to determine which foods are considered to be “dirty."

What Is The Dirty Dozen?

Every year, the EWG releases a list of 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticide residue. The produce that made the 2021 list include:

When consumers see the list, the takeaway is that they should avoid the 12 items on it. However, Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, a registered dietitian and the owner of Bucket List Tummy, explains that the Dirty Dozen list can "actually induce more fear in consumers about consuming fruits and vegetables and detract from the ability to meet recommended fruit and vegetable consumption.”

Should You Avoid Foods on the Dirty Dozen List?

Pesticides and herbicides are added to certain crops to control the plant’s exposure to pests, disease carriers, and unwanted weeds. While it is true that there might be potential health consequences of consuming a large amount of these chemicals, the EWG’s alarming report should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Investigating Pesticide Exposure

Back in 2011, Carl Winter, a toxicologist, investigated the pesticide levels of the Dirty Dozen list and put the results into context. 

Winter found that if a person truly ate the 12 “dirty” foods on the list regularly, the exposure to most of the pesticides would be less than 0.01 percent of the chronic exposure level that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers possibly harmful. 

Specifically, Winter's investigation found that:

  • The methodology used by the EWG to rank the fruits and vegetables with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility
  • Exposure to the most commonly detected pesticides on the “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables poses negligible risks to consumers
  • Substituting organic forms of the “dirty dozen” foods for conventional forms does not reduce consumer risks

Testing Against EPA Levels

Another source of evidence to consider is The USDA PDP report, an annual collection of data conducted on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service to collect data on pesticide residues in food.

The report has consistently found that about 99% of the food samples tested and deemed “dirty” by the EWG had pesticide residues that were well below the safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Almost half of the samples had no detectable pesticide residues at all. 

The AFF Tool

The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF) is a non-profit organization that represents organic and conventional farmers of fruits and vegetables and farms.

Elise Compston, RD, a registered dietitian based in Reno and the owner of CompstonKitchen, tells Verywell that the AFF has "a calculation tool that allows you to look up the number of servings of fruits and vegetables from the Dirty Dozen list that a person could consume on a daily basis without any effect from the pesticide.” 

Here's one example the tool provides: an adult woman could eat 453 servings of strawberries without experiencing any adverse effects of pesticides—even if the berries had the highest pesticide residue recorded.

To put that in perspective, one serving of strawberries is equal to eight berries. That means that the adult woman in the example could eat 3,624 individual strawberries without worrying about potential pesticide exposure. 

The Produce for Better Health Foundation

Compston also points to the Produce For Better Health Foundation, one of many reputable organizations with criticisms of the EWG's methods for creating the controversial lists.

“These include flawed methodology, misleading messaging, inconsistencies with authoritative bodies (including several government agencies and respected academic experts), and fear-mongering, at a time when food insecurity and inadequate fruit and vegetable intake is so high," says Compston.

It is estimated that 17 million Americans did not have adequate access to food in 2020.

The Effects of Negative Messaging

Research shows that consuming produce offers many health benefits, including a reduced risk of some cancers and heart disease. However, many people do not get enough produce in their diets. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most Americans do not eat the recommended number of fruits or vegetables per day.

Research has also shown that the Dirty Dozen list's negative messaging particularly impacts low-income consumers. In a study published in Nutrition Today, of over 500 low-income consumers surveyed, 15% said that they planned to eat fewer fruits and vegetables after becoming aware of the Dirty Dozen list.

“Whether they are grown conventionally or organically, all fruits and vegetables have nutritional value and benefits for us, such as increased immunity, fiber, reduced inflammation, added taste and texture, and more,” says Schlichter. “The benefits far outweigh the risks associated.” 

If You're Still Worried About Pesticides

Even if you take the Dirty Dozen list with a grain of salt, you might still worry about pesticides on the fruit and vegetables that you eat. Having concerns does not mean that you have to completely eliminate these foods from your diet. Instead, there are simple and effective steps you can take to reduce any risk.

Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian in New Jersey and the author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club, tells Verywell that people who are concerned about residues "can simply wash their fresh produce – organic and conventionally grown."

Harris-Pincus also points out that according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), "washing fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water is a healthful habit and can help remove or eliminate any residues that may be present on fruits and vegetables.”

What This Means For You

Many people are not eating enough produce to gain the nutritional benefits that these foods offer. Experts have questioned the methodology of the EWG's "Dirty Dozen" list of fruits and vegetables purported to have high levels of pesticide residue. Reputable investigations have shown that the risk to consumers is low. Since most Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables, the negative messaging of the Dirty Dozen list could deter people from adding these nutritious foods to their diets.

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