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Should I Avoid the “Dirty Dozen” Vegetables and Fruit?

February 23, 2016 by Dean Simmons, Registered Dietitian

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Should I Avoid the “Dirty Dozen” Vegetables and Fruit?

The Environmental Working Group’s yearly list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen vegetables and fruit have helped raise awareness about pesticide residues on produce purchased in the United States. But what, if anything, does this mean for Canadian shoppers when it comes to choosing fruit and veggies?

The facts:

  • The US government tests for pesticide residues found on vegetables and fruit each year. The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists are based on data from these tests. Even though the tests are done on produce purchased in the US, about 80 per cent of the imported vegetables and fruit that Canadians eat come from the US. So, these lists get some attention here too.
  • These lists are mainly based on the number and amount of pesticide residues found on US produce. They are intended to reflect pesticide loads not risks to health.

The pros and cons of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Pros:

  • These well-publicized lists raise awareness about pesticide residues on produce.
  • They direct shoppers towards vegetable and fruit choices that are least likely to have pesticide residues (the Clean Fifteen and organic options).

Cons:

  • The Dirty Dozen list is not based on health risks that could come from eating produce with pesticide residues.
  • Some people might avoid vegetables and fruit on the Dirty Dozen list and may doubt the safety of the food supply, even though reported pesticide amounts are very small.
  • The Dirty Dozen list downplays the fact that many of the vegetables and fruits tested have no detectable pesticide residues at all, and that nearly all (about 99%) in both the US and Canada have residues well below the pesticide specific safety limits set out in each country. These safety limits have been established for all people, including children. See the recommended resources below for detailed reports.

What you can do to reduce your exposure to pesticides from eating produce:

  • Eat a variety of vegetables and fruit to reduce your likelihood of exposure to any single pesticide (different pesticides are used on different foods).
  • Wash your produce with clean water for 30 seconds, using a scrub brush on firm fruit and veggies. There’s no need to use soap or mild detergents, tap water is just as effective.
  • Trim away the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Buy Canadian produce during the growing seasons as it tends to have fewer pesticide residues than imported produce. Learn what’s in season here.
  • Grow some of your own produce using non-toxic methods of pest control.
  • Consider buying produce listed on the Clean Fifteen.
  • Consider buying organic produce. However, know that organic produce may still contain residues of biological or synthetic pesticides. Get more information about buying organic here.

The bottom line:

Eat more vegetables and fruit! Health Canada states that there is no known health risk from eating conventionally grown produce (due to pesticide residues) and even the Environmental Working Group recognizes that the health benefits of eating a lot of vegetables and fruits outweigh the risks of dietary exposure to pesticide residues. These benefits are described in detail here by the Harvard School of Public Health, so go ahead and fill half your plate with fruits and veggies.


Related blogs

Organic Produce Decisions: 5 Things to Consider
What Makes Vegetables and Fruit So Special?
Flavourful Vegetables and Fruit All Winter Long
Veggies. Your Best Nutritional Value for the Money

Recommended resources

Health Canada: Pesticides and Food and Pesticides and Pest Management
Canadian Food Inspection Agency: Reports of Chemical Residues in Food
USDA: 2014 Pesticide Data Program
US Environmental Protection Agency: Pesticides and Food – Healthy, Sensible Food Practices
Harvard School of Public Health: Benefits of Vegetables and Fruit
Environmental Working Group: Summary of 2015 Shopper's Guide
Alliance for Food and Farming: Safe Fruits and Veggies
Journal of Toxicology: 2011 Critique of Dirty Dozen List
Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry: Effect of Rinsing Produce on Pesticide Residues

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