It’s nearly impossible to eat a nutritious and balanced diet without stocking up on fruits and vegetables. They are a great source of fiber, are low in calories, and provide crucial vitamins and minerals.
While modern agriculture has resulted in an abundance of fruits and vegetables available in supermarkets year round, that hasn’t come without a cost: Almost 70 percent of produce sold in the United States contains pesticide residue, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Should You Be Concerned About Pesticides?
Pesticides have pros and cons. They deter pests (like insects and rodents) from crops, which means farmers end up with a greater yield when it’s time to harvest. Pesticides are part of the reason you have a consistent supply of produce at your grocery store—and a good supply usually results in a lower price.
A con of pesticides is that it has a questionable effect on human health, especially if you consider the accumulative effect of eating foods with pesticide residue every day.
Researchers do not yet know exactly what long-term effects may result from eating a diet with high levels of pesticides, but they do have some concerns. For example, some ongoing research suggests that workers who apply pesticides have an increased incidence of certain types of cancers, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
How the “Dirty Dozen” Can Help
To avoid high exposure of pesticides, many people recommend eating an organic diet. This has some value: One study found that after just six days of eating organic food, participants reduced levels of pesticides in their urine by 60 percent, according to EWG.
That said, organic produce can add quite a bit to your grocery bill. One way to keep your receipt from doubling is to use the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.
Each year, the EWG issues a list of the 12 foods that contain the most pesticide residue, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Surprisingly, this list does evolve from year to year as new pesticides emerge or farming practices shift. Kale, for example, appears on the 2019 Dirty Dozen list for the first time.
Certain fruits and vegetables end up with different amounts of pesticides because they are more pest-prone than others. For example, pests tend to leave broccoli alone, but a variety of caterpillars, worms, and mites attack spinach crops. Other produce is vulnerable because it has a thin, edible skin (so pesticides affect the inside “meat” of the fruit).
What topped the list in 2019? Here is the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, ranked from “dirty” to “dirtiest.”
Here’s how the EWG recommends using the Dirty Dozen list: If you want to reduce your pesticide exposure, but can’t quite afford to go fully organic, just focus on the items on the Dirty Dozen. When possible, go organic with these items, or choose alternatives (e.g., broccoli instead of kale, or oranges instead of apples).
And if that’s still out of your budget, fear not: Most experts agree that conventional fruits and vegetables are still better than no fruits and vegetables at all.
For more smart spending tips, here are money-saving grocery tips for a healthy and affordable diet.