Are Fruits and Vegetables “Clean” or “Dirty?”

Each year about this time, a Washington based non-profit called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) comes out with two consumer-action lists that they call the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. These lists of twelve and fifteen fruits and vegetables are supposed to give consumers an unbiased report of the fruits and vegetables that are safest to consume -- at least as far as growing methods are concerned.

The Dirty Dozen are those fruits and vegetables that are most likely to contain harmful pesticide residue, while the Clean Fifteen are those produce items that are least likely to contain residual pesticide. The EWG compiles the lists by analyzing data from USDA and the EPA.

So which of your favorite produce items made the lists in 2019? As in past years, strawberries top the list of the Dirty Dozen, followed by spinach, kale (kale?!*), nectarines, apples and grapes. Peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes round out the “potentially harmful” list. For the Clean Fifteen, look for avocados, corn, pineapples, peas, onions, papayas, eggplants,

asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, cauliflower, cantaloupe, broccoli, mushrooms and honeydew. As a general rule, fruits and vegetables with a thicker outer skin or a rind appear to be better protected from absorption of chemicals.

Is this something that we need to think about when shopping for produce, or ordering a salad? Aside from giving produce industry writers and nutrition bloggers something to write about every spring, do these lists serve any real purpose in guiding consumers to better health?

As a dietitian, I’d say no. In fact, I think that media blitz lists like this do more harm to the public than good, as they have the unintended consequence of scaring people away from fruit and vegetable consumption. And those are foods that we definitely need to be eating more of, not less. If you prefer organically-grown produce, that’s great, but it’s not an option for everyone. And everyone can benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables.

When reading these stories, as always, take a look at the science behind the reports. A 2011 Journal of Toxicology study found that the EWG’s ranking methodology “lacks scientific credibility.” The study confirmed that the pesticides observed in the EWG report pose "negligible risks to consumers."

And by the way, if you think that all of this sounds like a commercial for organic farming, you’d be right, at least in part. EWG is funded by organic farming industry interests that have a market interest in driving more shoppers to choose the pricier organically grown fruits and vegetables.

*You’d have to eat 18,615 servings of kale in PER DAY, even if the kale is grown with the highest level of pesticides, in order to see any harmful effect from the pesticides, according to the Alliance for Food and Farming.¹ (

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