Not sure which organic produce is worth shelling out the extra cash for? Each year, the Environmental Working Group publishes its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to help consumers reduce their exposure to harmful pesticides by identifying the most contaminated fruits and vegetables. The guide includes EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list—the top foods laden with fungicides and pesticides—so you can make the best choices when it comes to going organic. Here are the current biggest offenders.
Apple-picking season is September through November and yet they’re available year-round. How? They’re sprayed with a fungicide to prevent spoilage and then coated with a food-grade wax before being put into cold storage, says Christopher Campbell, EWG’s Vice President for Information Technology. “They only pick them one time a year, so that apple you eat in August was picked the previous year,” says Campbell.
This grants them the top spot in the Dirty Dozen list.
Because pesticides were detected within the flesh of the fruit, peeling and washing doesn’t help curb exposure. Plus, it removes the skin, which is the most nutrient-rich part of the fruit. So when buying apples, go organic whenever possible.
Like apples, you can’t peel or wash your way out of this one. Because pesticides need to be diluted before being added to crops, they’re water soluble, says Campbell. Since celery has a high water content, the toxins are sucked directly into the stalk, making it virtually impossible to get around ingesting the pesticides unless you buy organic.
Cherry tomatoes joined the list in 2013. “Growing conditions can make different crops more vulnerable to certain pests,” explains EWG’s Sara Sciammacco. That can result in a higher rate of pesticide use, such as treating crops with post-harvest fungicides or pesticides. Along with several other crops, some cherry tomato crops are sprayed with a neurotoxic pesticide that may affect the developing human nervous system in young children, according to the EWG.
4Sweet bell peppers
Similar to apples, bell peppers are also coated in food-grade wax, which seals in pesticides and toxins.
Like nectarines and peaches, sweet-tasting strawberries are tempting to bugs. To protect the crop, strawberries get sprayed with pesticides that can’t be easily removed by washing or scrubbing.
6Nectarines and peaches
Because these fruits are sweet, bugs (just like us) love to feast on them, which means they get a heavy dose of pesticides that can’t be easily removed by washing or scrubbing. Case in point: Every single nectarine USDA tested had measurable pesticide residues, according to EWG.
As a category, grapes have more types of pesticides than any other fruit, with 64 different chemicals, according to EWG.
8Spinach and lettuce
Seventy-eight different pesticides were found on lettuce samples, according to EWG. Since they’re grown close to the ground, one might think that they experience a higher degree of pesticides to keep pests away, but the reality is that ground proximity does not make these foods significantly more vulnerable to insects and animals, according to Chuck Benbrook of the Organic Center.
“What matters is whether there is a skin or peel, and how tough that skin or peel is,” Benbrook says. Like most other foods on the Dirty Dozen, spinach and lettuce do not have a peel, making them far more susceptible pesticides.
Cucumbers are coated in food-grade wax to keep them fresh. Like apples and red peppers, the wax encases any pesticides, making them difficult to remove.
Hot peppers are another new addition to the latest “Dirty Dozen” list, likely because they became more vulnerable to certain pests, resulting in an increase in pesticide use. Nearly 10 percent of hot pepper crops tested by EWG were found to have above average rates of illegal pesticides.
To prevent potatoes from sprouting “eyes” or roots, farmers spray them with toxic compounds, such as lectins, and growth inhibitors, which slow down the growing process and keep potatoes from needing to be refrigerated during storage.
12Kale and collared greens
The reigning “it” food kale remains on the Dirty Dozen list from last year, along with a new addition: collared greens. The pesticides used on these crops are toxic to the nervous system. Even though they have been largely removed from agriculture over the past decade, according to EWG, they aren’t banned.
“Organophosphate pesticides are of special concern since they are associated with neurodevelopmental effects in children,” said Congleton. “Infants in particular should avoid exposure to these pesticides since they are more susceptible to the effects of chemical insult than adults.”