We like to think that all the groceries we take home from the market or buy online are perfectly safe. While that’s often true, the bacteria and other harmful toxins that lurk on fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy products can cause a number of short- and long-term health complications.
Fruits and vegetables are billed as some of the healthiest foods, but they’re also most prone to containing pesticides which are used to protect them from invasive animals and disease during cultivation. In fact, nearly three-quarters of all non-organic produce has detectable levels of pesticides by the time it reaches your supermarket shelves or grocery delivery order, according to a 2023 study by food safety nonprofit Environmental Working Group.
But some are worse than others. To help suss out which fruits and veggies are most likely to have potentially harmful pesticides, the Environmental Working Group analyzed 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables tested by the FDA and USDA to compile the annual ‘Dirty Dozen,’ a list of the produce most likely to be contaminated with pesticides.
The list is made up largely of fruits and vegetables without a protective skin such as berries, greens, apples and stone fruit.
The 2023 ‘Dirty Dozen’
- Kale, collard and mustard greens
- Bell and hot peppers
- Green beans
The Dirty Dozen is a good indicator meant to alert consumers to the fruits and vegetables most in need of thorough washing. Even a quick rinse with water or a spritz produce wash helps.
You can also sidestep much of the potential risk by buying certified organic fruits and vegetables that are free from the use of farming pesticides. Knowing which foods are more likely to contain pesticides might help you decide where to spend that bit of extra money on organic. And, as I learned in an analysis of organic and nonorganic prices, they really aren’t as expensive as you might think.
More takeaways from the Dirty Dozen study
- More than 90% of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
- A total of 210 different pesticides were found on Dirty Dozen items.
- Of those 210, over 50 different pesticides were detected on every type of crop on the list, except cherries.
- Kale, collard and mustard greens, as well as hot peppers and bell peppers, had the most pesticides detected of any crop — 103 and 101 pesticides in total, respectively
Conversely, the EWG found these 15 fruits and vegetables Ieast likely to contain pesticides.
The 2023 ‘Clean 15’
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
- Sweet Potatoes
EWG’s methodology involves six measures of pesticide contamination. The analysis focuses on which fruits and vegetables are most likely to contain one or more pesticides but does not measure how much of any one pesticide is on a given piece of produce. You can read more on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen in the published study here.