In modern grocery chain stores, you can usually find any fruits and vegetables you want at any time of year. Produce sections packed with vibrant reds, yellows and greens are like a scene from a cooking show, calling for shoppers to pick out some sweet strawberries or a fresh bunch of kale. This produce, however, may be on the “Dirty Dozen” list, a compilation of types of produce with the highest amounts of pesticides in vegetables and fruit.
The Origins of the Dirty Dozen
In 2004, the Environmental Working Group began releasing an annual report, “Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.” The report is based on more than 30,000 samples collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Both groups are responsible for regulating the food that hits supermarket shelves. By keeping a watchful eye on the chemicals, including pesticides, that enter American homes, the organizations hope to reduce negative side effects and increase the amount of food that’s safe to eat.
Every year since then, the EWG reports on the Dirty Dozen as well as the “Clean 15,” the types of produce with the lowest amounts of pesticides. The 2016 report found that more than 98 percent of the samples of strawberries, apples, nectarines and peaches tested positive for at least one pesticide. Some strawberry samples showed up to 17 different pesticides.
Why the Dirty Dozen Matter
Pesticides do serve a purpose. They are meant to prevent, destroy or otherwise control pests that could compromise crop yields. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates the pesticides used on vegetables and fruits, ensuring that farmers and other produce generators are meeting specific safety requirements. These requirements help draw the line between what is – and what is not – safe to eat. They also allow food producers to use the chemicals needed to prevent the spread of diseases or illnesses from pests through viruses, bacteria and other microorganisms.
The governmental regulation of pesticides is designed to ensure that when produce enters your home, it is safe to eat. The EPA, the USDA and the FDA work together to set safety thresholds. These thresholds are based on scientific research conducted to determine that humans can tolerate a set amount of pesticides.
The ingredients in pesticides can pose risks to children and people with health concerns. These chemicals can negatively affect the nervous system and the endocrine system, which is responsible for metabolism, sexual function, body growth and hormone regulation.
Beyond affecting critical systems of the body, some pesticides have also been found to increase the risk of cancer.
Because of these negative effects of pesticides in vegetables and fruit, organic produce and farming is encouraged. Organic farming does not use traditional means of fertilizing or killing weeds and pests. Instead, organic farmers use natural fertilizers and crop rotation to avoid weeds. The USDA identifies and regulates specific standards for produce to be labeled “organic” in grocery stores.
Organic to the Rescue
Health care professionals can agree on one thing: eating fruits and vegetables is an important part of a balanced, nutritious diet. Produce provides nutrients your body needs to function at full capacity, as well as vitamins that help keep you healthy. A diet high in produce can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension.
Some farmers markets and community-support agriculture in North Carolina even offer 100 percent organic produce. While organic food isn’t necessarily better or healthier – there haven’t been many studies done on it – organic produce does contain less pesticide. From the studies that have been done, the nutritional values of organic and conventional produce are about the same.
The Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen lists are a great resource for individuals who have made efforts to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption and are ready to investigate ways to fine-tune their diets even further. These resources are also a great tool for navigating a tight budget – if you would like to buy more organic foods but can’t afford to commit completely to the (sometimes) higher cost of organic produce, prioritize purchasing the organic varieties of fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list.
The 2016 Dirty Dozen and Clean 15
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
The Clean 15 include:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas, frozen
- Honeydew melons
If you’d like to incorporate more fresh produce into your diet and eliminate intake of pesticides in vegetables and fruit you eat, schedule an appointment with one of the registered dietitians or clinicians at LifeStyle Medical Centers. Call us to discuss the Dirty Dozen, the Clean 15 and what you can eat to help prevent chronic diseases.