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Dirty Dozen List: Are You Eating the Most Pesticide-Laden Produce?


Dirty dozen - Dr. axe

The Environmental Working Group released its Dirty Dozen list, a “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” and it serves as a solid reminder that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to cleaning up the food system. This year, the report found that almost 70 percent of non-organic samples tested positive for at least one pesticide. And get this: A single sample of kale, collard and mustard greens contained up to 21 different pesticides.

This includes a chemical called Dacthal, which the European Union banned more than a decade ago. It’s listed as a possible human carcinogen and still legal for use in the United States, along with dozens of other chemicals linked to cancer, hormone and metabolic disruption, obesity, and neurotoxicity in humans.

Thankfully, EWG’s report also features a “Clean 15” list, which identifies the non-organic produce least likely to be contaminated with pesticide levels. I advise choosing and growing organic as often as possible, but if you’re on a budget or your selection is limited, these lists help you focus your attention on avoiding the most contaminated fruits and veggies. Because one thing is clear: most of us need more vegetables and fruits in our diets. 

Key Findings of the Report

  • Environmental Working group analyzed USDA pesticide residue data and found that almost 70 percent of non-organic produce sampled tested positive for pesticide contamination.
  • Washing and peeling produce will not remove all pesticide residues. Data for this report comes from USDA and FDA pesticide residue testing from fruits and vegetables tested as they are typically eaten. “This means it’s washed and, when applicable, peeled,” explains Alexis Temkin, PhD, co-author of the report. “For example, bananas are peeled before testing, and blueberries and peaches are washed.”
  • More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy greens tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • On average, spinach samples harbored 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop tested.
  • Neonicotinoids pesticide residues, known for harming pollinators, were detected in/on almost one-fifth of fruits and vegetables humans eat, and may harm the develping fetus and children.
  • Residues of at least one of three neonicotinoid pesticides banned in the European Union – imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam – were found on more than half the samples of potatoes, spinach and lettuce tested in the United States.
  • Neonicitoinoid contamination was also found on more than one-fourth of the samples of U.S. cherries, watermelon and strawberries.

The Dirty Dozen List and Clean 15 List

EWG’s Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale/Collard Greens/Mustard Greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Bell and Hot Peppers
  8. Cherries
  9. Peaches
  10. Pears
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

EWG’s Clean 15 

The Clean 15 list includes produce that is least likely to be contaminated by pesticides.

Here’s the Clean 15 List: 

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn*
  3. Pineapples
  4. Onions
  5. Papayas*
  6. Frozen Sweet Peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Honeydew Melon
  9. Kiwi
  10. Cabbage
  11. Mushrooms
  12. Cantaloupe
  13. Mangoes
  14. Watermelon
  15. Sweet Potatoes

* Note: Some sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States are GMOs, so choose organic to avoid GMOs.

The Worrisome Side of Citrus

EWG is also raising red flags when it comes to non-organic citrus, even though citrus didn’t land on the Dirty Dozen list. The organization found that almost 90% of citrus samples analyzed in 2020 tested positive for imazalil, a fungicide that can interfere with hormone levels. The Environmental Protection Agency dubbed this fungicide a “likely human carcinogen.”

USDA’s own 2019 testing looking at tangerines found more than 95% tested positive for imazalil, too.

This underscores the fact that we need to be concerned about not just the number of different pesticides on and in our food — but the potency and danger level of the chemicals, too.

EWG also performed independent pesticide testing on citrus fruits and found imazalil, a fungicide linked to cancer and hormone disruption, in nearly 90 percent of samples. It’s important to note that the chemical was detected on peeled oranges and found at levels almost 20 times higher than EWG’s recommended limit to protect children’s health.

Dirty dozen - Dr. Axe

Watch Out for Adulterated Raisins

Generally, EWG focuses on test results from USDA’s fresh produce testing. But back in 2020, EWG included the dried fruit in its rankings.

And what the organization found is startling, and all the more reason to reach for organic when you’re shopping for raisins. Raisins scored worse than strawberries, nectarines, apples and cherries. In fact, 99 precent of raisins contained at least two pesticides, according to the 2020 version of the report.

“This year, the USDA included testing data for raisins and found that 99 percent of conventional raisins had two or more pesticides residues and, on average, a single sample contained 13 different pesticides,” Temkin told “If raisins were included in our fresh produce rankings, they would have outranked strawberries as the food with the most pesticide residues.”

Interestingly, pesticides were even found on organic raisins, prompting researchers to note that prunes tend to have lower pesticide residues than both conventional and organic raisins.

Final Thoughts

  • EWG released its annual Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, highlighting the fruits and vegetables most and least likely to harbor pesticide residues.
  • Strawberries are high on the contamination list again this year,  but spinach and pears were also highlighted for extreme pesticide residues.
  • In independent testing, nearly 90% of non-organic citrus tested contained traces of
  • You can sign EWG’s petition to get this chemical, labeled as “likely a human carcinogen,” banned.
  • Raisins, a dried fruit, contained more contamination than even strawberries. Even organic raisins were somewhat contaminated, although not as badly, in general, as non-organic versions.
  • This list should in no way deter you from eating fruits and vegetables, but it should make you wary of modern chemical farming. Using chemicals to fumigate the soil and kill weeds, microbes and bugs has some unwanted side effects, including killing soil health and beneficial microbes.
  • Pesticides are linked to dozens of health problems, including certain cancers, symptoms of ADHD, autism, Parkinson’s and a whole host of other issues.
  • Thankfully, there’s a link between switching to organic foods and lowering the levels of pesticides inside of the body.
  • Access to organic foods is an equity issue, though, so action at the federal level is needed to improve access to health food and to ban dangerous chemicals in farming.

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