One reason consumers choose organic produce is to reduce their consumption of pesticides. While there are a variety of research studies and a multitude of opinions on the medical, environmental and social aspects of organic foods, the bottom line for shoppers is choosing what is best for the physical and financial well being of their families. There are many sources of information to guide these shopping decisions, but one of the best is an annually updated study published by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Several years ago the EWG began publishing the results of an extensive study of pesticide residue on 47 popular fruits and vegetables. The most recent update to the study includes the results of 87,000 tests for pesticides residue conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration from 2000 to 2007. Nearly all of the data analyzed by the EWG are based on testing fruits and vegetables that were washed and peeled in much the same way a home consumer would before eating produce. The study assesses pesticide contamination using the following criteria:
% of samples tested with detectable pesticides
% of samples with 2 or more pesticides present
Average number of pesticides found on a sample
Average amount of all pesticides found (expressed in parts per million)
Maximum number of pesticides found in a single sample
Number of pesticides found on the commodity in total
The EWG analysis does not present a complex assessment of pesticide risk; instead, it provides the consumer with a sense of the overall load of pesticides found on commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. This approach captures the uncertainty of assessing the risks of pesticide consumption and leaves it to the consumer to make the choice to buy less contaminated produce (for a detailed discussion, go to www.foodnews.org/methodolgy.php).
The results of the EWG analysis include a ranking of the 47 fruits and vegetables from most to least contaminated. The 12 most contaminated items are known as the dirty dozen. Using a simulation of thousands of consumers eating high and low pesticide diets, EWG showed that consumers can lower their pesticide exposure by as much as 80% by avoiding the dirty dozen items and eating the least contaminated items instead. The dirty dozen and the 12 cleanest produce items are:
Dirty Dozen Products
(Highest Pesticide Residue)
12 Cleanest Products
(Lowest Pesticide Residue)
Sweet Bell Pepper
Sweet Corn (Frozen)
Sweet Peas (frozen)
Using these two lists as a guide while keeping financial (budget) issues in mind, the consumer has a number of options when trying to reduce pesticide consumption in the family diet:
If you need an item from the dirty dozen list and you can afford it, buy the organic version of that fruit or vegetable if it is available.
If the organically grown version is too expensive or seasonally unavailable, substitute a conventionally grown item from the list of 12 cleanest fruits and vegetables. If the issue is availability, check with your grocer or the local farmers market to determine when you can buy the item is season.
When the organically grown version of the fruit or vegetable is seasonally available, buy it in larger quantities with the intention of preserving some for future consumption. Preservation methods include home canning, drying, and freezing once the produce has been properly prepared for preservation.
Stock up on canned and frozen items from the list of 12 cleanest fruits and vegetables when they are on sale. The best sales typically run right before and after the peak harvest season for fresh produce.
Consider growing your own fruits and vegetables if you can devote a small part of your yard to the task. Dwarf fruit trees can yield enough fruit to feed a small family, and vegetables like tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, carrots, bell peppers and onions are relatively easy to grow in the spring, summer and early fall. In addition to the health benefit of home grown produce, there is a certain sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from growing and harvesting your own produce.