Until I found out about the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, shopping for produce seemed like a game of Let's Make a Deal. I loaded my cart with a mixture of organic and conventional produce, trying to stick to a reasonable food budget, but with no system or info to help me choose which organic foods to splurge on and which conventional ones to settle for. For all I knew, I could have been buying the most toxic conventional produce (and sometimes I was) and forking over three times as much for organic produce whose nutritional and "pesticidal" portrait wasn't too far off its conventional brother's.
While reading Victoria Moran's Main Street Vegan, I came across these lists from the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit whose mission is "to use the power of public information to protect public health and the environment." They tell consumers which conventional fruits and vegetables are most toxic and which are virtually pesticide-free. The group bases its recommendations on analysis of 51,000 tests for pesticides in produce as conducted by the USDA and FDA from 2000 to 2009. Foods were usually tested after they were rinsed or peeled.
Here's the Dirty Dozen list -- the most pesticide-laden conventional produce you can buy. Many of these items have thin leaves or skins that make it easy for them to absorb more toxins. You should buy these fruits and vegetables organic whenever possible to minimize toxicity in your diet:
6. Nectarines (imported)v7. Grapes (imported)
8. Sweet bell peppers
10. Blueberries (domestic)
12. Kale/collard greens
And here is the Clean 15 list -- the cleanest conventional produce on the market. Some of these foods had no detectable pesticide residue at all. Note that many of the "clean" fruits and veggies have thick skins that make it harder for pesticides to permeate.
2. Sweet corn
6. Sweet peas
9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
13. Sweet potatoes
So how much better off are you when you choose foods from the clean list? Here's how the EWG sums it up:
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If you choose 5 servings of fruits and vegetables a day from EWG's Clean 15 rather than the Dirty Dozen, you can lower the volume of pesticide you consume daily by 92 percent, according to EWG calculations. You'll also eat fewer types of pesticides. Picking 5 servings of fruits and vegetables from the 12 most contaminated would cause you to consume an average of 14 different pesticides a day. If you choose 5 servings from the 15 least contaminated fruits and vegetables, you'll consume fewer than 2 pesticides per day.
These lists are an awesome place to start if you're looking to maximize your health while minimizing costs. At the same time, it doesn't address variation in nutrient content of conventional versus organic food. But that's a whole other story.
I spoke to an employee at EWG who told me the list will be updated soon. I'll be sure to keep you posted, although she expressed doubt that the new list would be very different from 2011's. In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the other work EWG is doing to expose toxicity in household cleaners and beauty products, which are dangerous to both you and the environment.