The Dirty Dozen

by Andy Dutra, Clemente Center Personal Trainer

We have all heard time and time again to “always choose organic” or that “organic is better.”   We put time and effort into preparing our daily meals, and exploring new healthy dishes for friends and family to try.  And if any of you are like me, you pride yourself on being healthy and knowledgeable.  You feel great after a healthy meal, or a good workout.  But what if you are missing a key element to your health, a considerably vital factor, at a fairly basic level?

When we purchase organic food, we are helping reduce the pesticides that harm our environment. Eliminating these pesticides is crucial not only to the health of our environment, but also to our bodies as well.  Studies have found links between high levels of pesticide intake and neurological damage (including Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s), as well as endocrine and reproductive disorders.  The Environmental Working Group releases annual studies that analyze data from the Department of Agriculture.  They closely examine pesticide residue on a large number of fruits and vegetables.  They believe we can all significantly reduce our exposure to these harmful pesticides by approximately 80% if we purchase organic produce. The following list summarizes the “dirtiest” or most pesticide-laden produce items. If you can only swing a few organic items at the grocery store each week, make sure to prioritize these fruits and vegetables.

1. Apples – The old saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” now includes an important caveat, “BUY ORGANIC”.   With more than 40 different pesticides detected, apples are consistently rated among the dirtiest produce items.  With 7 known carcinogens, 19 suspected hormone disruptors, 10 neurotoxins, and 6 developmental/reproductive toxins, non-organic apples are likely to lead to a number of negative health effects in humans.

2. Celery – USDA testing has discovered more than 60 different pesticides on celery, 13 of these pesticides are known cancer causing carcinogens.  If you can’t find organic celery, try using onions or broccoli for a lower-pesticide alternative.

3. Strawberries – Nearly 60 kinds of pesticides have also been found on strawberries.  Given their delicate flesh and lack of a protective skin, many of the pesticides sprayed on strawberries can be found in the final product.  The majority of these pesticides are suspected hormone disruptors.  If organic strawberries are unavailable or too expensive, pineapple and kiwi are two of the lowest pesticide fruits.

4. Peaches – More than 50 kinds of pesticides have been found on peaches and the majority of these pesticides are retained due to the peach’s fuzzy skin.

5. Spinach – With 48 types of pesticides, Spinach is the leading contender in the leafy greens category.  Two of the most commonly used types of pesticides found in spinach are permethrin and dimethoate, which are both potential human carcinogens.  With over exposure to these pesticides, we have increased chances in developing many types of disorders including those of the brain, and nervous system.  Alternatively, canned spinach has been proven to carry less pesticide residues when organics are not an option.

6. Nectarines – Yet another tree fruit found with high levels of pesticide residue, USDA data has found 33 different pesticides on nectarines, and 7 of these are known carcinogens.  If organic nectarines aren’t available, Pineapples, papaya, or mangos make for great alternatives.

7. Grapes – Over 30 pesticides have been found on grapes.  A large portion of these pesticides are neurotoxins and potential hormone disruptors.  Imported grapes have shown to carry even higher levels of pesticide residues.  When organic grapes are not an option, domestically grown grapes are a smarter purchase.

8. Sweet Bell Peppers – Nearly 50 kinds of pesticides have been detected on sweet bell peppers.  This includes 11 known carcinogens, 26 suspected hormone disruptors, 13 neurotoxins, and even carries a high level of bee toxins.

9. White Potatoes – While potatoes are a vegetable of the ground, and generally perceived as safer, the USDA data reveals 37 pesticide residues detected on the potato.  Sweet potatoes make a great alternative!

10. Blueberries – Blueberries have over 50 types of detectable pesticides.  Surprisingly, frozen blueberries have proved to be slightly less contaminated.  When organics are not an option, consider using bananas to top up your morning cereal.

11. Lettuce – With more than 50 pesticide residues found, lettuce joins Spinach in the leafy greens category.  The next time you’re making a salad and organic lettuce cannot be found, cabbage is an excellent alternative.  Very few sprays are required on cabbage, and it doesn’t retain much of them.  Cabbage does however retain beta carotene, an antioxidant known for its possible cancer fighting attributes.

12. Kale/Collard Greens – A true superfood, Kale is known for its many health benefits, including several cancer fighting antioxidants.  Unfortunately we do more harm than good by consuming non organic Kale.  USDA testing shows 55 types of pesticides found on kale.  Safer alternatives to kale include cabbage, broccoli or dandelion greens.

“Clean 15”:

  • Onions
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Avocado
  • Asparagus
  • Sweet peas
  • Mangoes
  • Eggplant
  • Cantaloupe (domestic)
  • Kiwi
  • Cabbage
  • Watermelon
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Grapefruit
  • Mushrooms

Additional Tips

  • When organic versions of the items on the above list are unavailable or too expensive, favor fruits or vegetables with thick skins or peels (e.g. bananas, avocados, grapefruits and watermelon).
  • As a general rule, tree fruits, berries, and leafy greens have the highest pesticide levels and should be prioritized for organic purchases.

Next time you’re browsing the produce section of your local market, keep this list in mind to help you make smart, healthy and budget-friendly tradeoffs.


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