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What are the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen of Produce?

Bowl of berries beside two red apples

The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen represent the produce items with the most and least pesticide residues respectively. These lists are produced and published each year by the Environmental Working Group.

The Dirty Dozen List

The Dirty Dozen list is in descending order of highest to lowest pesticide count. Keep in mind that with some items, more than one type of pesticide residue was detected in testing. For example, on a single strawberry, researchers found 20 different types of pesticides.

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The Dirty Dozen are the produce items you should try to buy organic or grow organically. Why? Well, there are two main reasons behind this: your health and the environment.

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Grapes
  6. Peaches
  7. Cherries
  8. Pears
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Celery
  11. Potatoes
  12. Sweet bell peppers

Health Factors

The Dirty Dozen produce items have the highest levels of pesticide residues, even after being thoroughly rinsed and peeled.

These non-organic pesticides have been linked to serious human health concerns like cancer, immune suppression, and reproductive abnormalities.

So does this mean you shouldn’t eat them if you can’t find or afford organic versions? This is a complex question. If the majority of your fruits and vegetables come from the Dirty Dozen list, removing them entirely could lead to nutritional deficiencies and poor health. If this is your situation, I suggest trying to replace a few items from the Dirty Dozen list with some from the Clean Fifteen list.

You can also try your hand at growing organic versions of the Dirty Dozen. This is cost-effective, good for your mental health, and easier than you might think.

Environmental Factors

In addition to our personal health, we need to consider the impact of those intensive synthetic pesticides on the soil, surrounding ecosystems, and pollinators.

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Pesticides of this nature destroy the beneficial microorganisms that foster soil fertility. Over time, this leads to nutritionally-deficient soil systems. This increases our need for input resources and disrupts the natural balance. It also increases the risk of run-off, whereby excess pesticides enter the groundwater and pollute waterways. The most commonly used pesticides in the world, neonicotinoid pesticides, have also been linked to the bee colony collapse and the decline of monarch butterfly populations.

Eating organically is the best way to support growing methods that work with nature, rather than against it.

The Clean Fifteen List

I love the Clean Fifteen list because it acknowledges that the majority of us cannot afford to exclusively shop organically. When you inevitably need to compromise, this is your go-to list. These items have all shown the lowest levels of pesticide residues.

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbages
  5. Onions
  6. Sweet frozen peas
  7. Papayas
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangos
  10. Eggplant
  11. Honeydew melons
  12. Kiwis
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Broccoli

You might notice several of the Clean Fifteen are not local to Canada, but eating locally is kind of like eating organically—it’s amazing in theory, but more difficult in practice. It seems that whenever we eat, we must make a choice between one harm or another. Do you opt for the locally-grown, pesticide-laden potato or the organic version that’s been shipping in from the States? Do you choose foreign pineapples over locally-grown organic strawberries?

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As with anything in life, balance is key—and easier to use as a platitude than to achieve in reality. Do your best. The point of lists like these is to arm you with information so you can make the choices that sit right for you, your family, and your budget.

If you want to see where other produce items rank outside the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen, head over to the Environmental Working Group for the full report.

Cover image credit: Pexels

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