The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released its 2023 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 nearly 75 percent of non-organic samples tested positive for at least one pesticide.
And get this: Kale, collard greens and mustard greens, along with hot peppers and bell peppers, had between 101–103 pesticides.
In addition, blueberries and green beans were added to the list this year, and alarmingly, green bean samples displayed residue of acephate, a toxic pesticide that was banned from use on green beans grown for food by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) more than a decade ago.
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
- The 2023 guide comes from data from more than 46,500 samples from 46 fruits and vegetables, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) washing and testing the samples.
- The USDA and FDA found traces of 251 separate pesticides.
- Some of these pesticides have been banned by the EPA for a long, long time.
- Green beans and blueberries, both new additions this year, were found to have “troubling concentrations” of organophosphate insecticides, which can harm the central nervous system.
- Cantaloupe was replaced on the Clean 15 list with carrots.
- The vast majority (more than 90 percent) of grapes, nectarines, spinach, apples, cherries and strawberries tested positive for two more pesticides.
- There were 210 total pesticides found on Dirty Dozen produce.
- 50 of those pesticides were found on 11 of the Dirty Dozen crops — excluding cherries.
- Every Dirty Dozen list food had at least 13 pesticides detected and up to 23.
- As noted, kale, collard and mustard greens, along with some peppers, had the most pesticides.
- Prohibited from use on green beans since 2011, 6 percent of green bean samples tested positive for the neurotoxic organophosphate insecticide acephate.
- Nearly 65 percent of the Clean 15 list samples had no detectable pesticides.
- Less than 2 percent of avocado and sweet corn samples detected pesticides, making them the cleanest produce.
- Slightly more than 10 percent of the Clean 15 samples had two more pesticides.
- No Clean 15 samples had more than three pesticides detected.
The Dirty Dozen List and Clean 15 List
EWG’s Dirty Dozen
- Kale, collard and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
- Green beans
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:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
- Sweet Potatoes
The Worrisome Side of Citrus
EWG also has raised 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 EPA 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.
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.
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.
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.
Dirty Dozen Food Chemicals
In addition to the Dirty Dozen produce list, EWG also unveiled its “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Chemicals: The top 12 to avoid” list. As the EWG report explains:
Almost 99 percent of food chemicals introduced since 2000 were greenlighted for use by food and chemical companies, rather than properly reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. Many of these widely used chemicals are associated with major health harms, including increased risk of cancer, developmental harm and hormone disruption.
These substances end up in what we eat, thanks to a legal loophole that allows foods to be classified as “generally recognized as safe.” It’s a loophole food and chemical companies have exploited for decades – it means that instead of the FDA determining which food chemicals are safe to consume, the manufacturers of those substances decide.
Here are the top 12 food chemicals EWG recommends avoiding:
- Nitrates and nitrites
- Potassium bromate
- Propyl paraben
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
- Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
- Tert-butylhydroquinone (TBHQ)
- Titanium dioxide
- Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)
- Forever chemicals (PFAS)
- Artificial colors
- Artificial sweeteners
- Heavy metals
“Despite the abundance of science linking exposure to pesticides with serious health issues, a potentially toxic cocktail of concerning chemicals continues to taint many of the non-organic fruits and vegetables eaten by consumers,” said Alexis Temkin, Ph.D., EWG toxicologist.
“Everyone – adults and kids – should eat more fruits and vegetables, whether organic or not,“ Temkin said. “A produce-rich diet provides many health benefits.
“But in the ongoing absence of meaningful federal oversight, consumers concerned about pesticide exposure can use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to navigate the produce aisle in ways that work best for them and their families.”