NEWS

EWG Updates Dirty Dozen List for 2021—Should You Use It?

A rainbow of fruits and vegetables
A rainbow of fruits and vegetables.

 fcafotodigital/Getty Images

Key Takeaways:

  • The Environmental Working Group recently released updated lists of fruits and vegetables with the most or least pesticide residues.
  • Shoppers should not avoid eating fruits or vegetables over fears of pesticides.
  • It’s important to eat fruits and vegetables daily for their health benefits, whether they are organic or conventionally grown.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently released their annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The guide includes the Dirty Dozen list of the twelve fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues and the Clean Fifteen list of produce with the lowest pesticide levels. 

Met by both cheers and jeers, the annual guide is often embraced by organic food shoppers, but panned by some health professionals and researchers who question the scientific rigor behind the lists. Let’s dive deeper into the evidence to help you make confident and safe choices when grocery shopping for fruits and vegetables.

Which fruits and vegetables are safest?

The premise of the EWG Guide is to help consumers understand which fruits and vegetables have the most or least pesticide residues.

Thomas Galligan, Ph.D., a toxicologist with the EWG explains that the Dirty Dozen is not a list of fruits and vegetables to avoid. Rather, the EWG recommends that consumers choose organic versions of these twelve "Dirty Dozen" items, if available and affordable:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, collards, and mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Peaches
  9. Pears
  10. Bell & hot peppers
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

But if you can’t access or afford organic versions of these foods, the conventionally-grown ones are safe and healthy too. That point is often misunderstood – but it’s important to note.

“Fruits and vegetables are a fundamental part of a healthy diet,” says Galligan. “Everyone should be eating more produce, whether conventional or organic, because the benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential harms of pesticide exposures.”

Thomas Galligan, PhD

Everyone should be eating more produce, whether conventional or organic, because the benefits of a diet high in fruits and vegetables outweigh the potential harms of pesticide exposures.

— Thomas Galligan, PhD

Previous studies have shown that when the EWG list is misunderstood, it can instill fear in people who can’t afford to buy organic produce; they buy fewer fruits and vegetables overall because they fear pesticides in conventionally-grown options. This is the wrong message to receive. 

“Shoppers should not avoid eating fruits or vegetables over fears of pesticides,” says Galligan.

The Clean Fifteen

The Guide also reports on the Clean Fifteen, which is a list of fruits and vegetables that have the lowest level of pesticide residues. The list includes avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, and papaya.

“EWG recognizes that organic foods are not always available or affordable for everyone, which is why we also create our Clean Fifteen list,” explains Galligan.

For those who are concerned about pesticides but can’t access or afford organic produce, the Clean Fifteen list showcases conventional fruits and vegetables that are lower in pesticide residues.

How concerned should we be about pesticide exposure?

So, are these lists necessary? How concerned should we be about pesticides on our fruits and vegetables? It depends on who you ask.

A recent systematic review supports the EWG’s position that eating organic food reduces pesticide exposure and may be linked to health benefits. But the review was written by researchers at the Centre for Organics Research, so bias may be a factor.

But other studies that are not funded by the organic food industry have also pointed to some questionable effects from certain pesticides.

One study observed an association between lower cancer risk in people who eat more organic food, but the researchers confirmed that more studies were needed to determine the underlying factors involved in this association.

Some studies have shown that pregnant women who eat conventional produce have more pesticides in their urine than women who eat conventionally grown produce. In some cases, a maternal diet high in specific pesticides has been linked to impaired cognitive development in children.

Still, most health professionals – and even the EWG -- say that a diet high in fruits and vegetables outweighs the potential concerns from pesticide exposure.  

“I don't recommend that people use the Dirty Dozen to determine which fruits and vegetables to buy,” says dietitian Abby Langer, owner of Abby Langer Nutrition and author of Good Food, Bad Diet.

“First of all, we need to understand that all forms of farming - even organic - use pesticides. Organic pesticides can be just as problematic as the synthetic ones. So organic food isn't automatically 'cleaner,'” says Langer.

 A review of the Dirty Dozen published in the Journal of Toxicology found that:

  • Exposures to the most commonly detected pesticides on the twelve commodities pose negligible risks to consumers.
  • Substitution of organic forms of the twelve commodities for conventional forms does not result in any appreciable reduction of consumer risks.
  • The methodology used by the EWG to rank commodities with respect to pesticide risks lacks scientific credibility.

This study does not list its funding sources, but the co-authors have done consulting work within the conventional food industry.

Pesticides in Produce

Studies show that environmental contamination can occur in both conventional and organic foods since both types of farms use pesticides when growing fruits and vegetables. Yet, the Dirty Dozen list only shares details about pesticides on conventionally grown produce, but not on organic options.

Conventional pesticides are often synthetic, while organic pesticides are naturally derived. But being natural does not necessarily mean that organic pesticides are safer, nor does it mean that synthetic conventional pesticides are inherently unsafe.

Abby Langer RD

I don't recommend that people use the Dirty Dozen to determine which fruits and vegetables to buy.

— Abby Langer RD

Studies do show that some pesticides have been linked to harmful effects in human health. This is usually seen when these pesticides are used incorrectly or ingested at very high doses. As the saying goes, the dose makes the poison.

That brings us to the flaws in the Dirty Dozen list: it tells us which foods contain pesticide residues, but does not offer information about which pesticides were found, the amount that was found, or whether the pesticide is problematic for human health in the dose that’s ingested.

“The EWG's methods range from not reporting pesticide residues on organic foods at all, to not reporting on which pesticides were actually found, how much were found, and how they stack up to the EPA's acceptable levels for those compounds,” explains Langer. 

These gaps mean we don’t have enough information to make informed decisions about food safety based on these lists alone.  

How is pesticide residue found?

The EWG uses data from fruit and vegetable samples taken by the USDA and the FDA. But there’s one problem: the USDA selects a subset of fruits and vegetables to test each year, rather than testing every crop.

The 2021 Guide uses USDA data on fruits and vegetables that was collected between 2006 and 2019, but has no data from 2020 or 2021. So why use outdated data? VeryWell asked Galligan this question.

“EWG always includes the most recent testing data from USDA,” says Galligan. “Because it takes a long time for the USDA to collect, process and test samples, they release the data a full year or more after samples have been collected. They also don’t test every type of crop every year, so the data we have is based on USDA’s most recent sampling for that crop.”

That means that in any given year, EWG is not truly comparing the pesticide residue on crops that were recently tested side-by-side within that year. For some fruits and vegetables, the information on pesticide residues may be 15 years old. Not really comparing apples to apples, is it?

So, do you need to choose organic?

The EWG advises consumers to choose organic produce whenever possible, especially for items on the Dirty Dozen list. Not everyone agrees with this advice.

“The EWG is an activist agency, not a government one,” says Langer. “This means that the EWG has an agenda, which is to promote the industries it is funded by - namely, organic food producers.”

Ultimately, the choice is yours as the grocery shopper. Choose what you can afford, access and enjoy, but don’t fear fruits and vegetables that are conventionally grown.

What This Means For You:

Eating fruits and vegetables is good for overall health, whether they are conventionally or organically grown. Your best bet is to choose whichever fruits and vegetables you can access, afford and enjoy, whether conventional or organic.

 

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7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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