Every year the Environmental Working Group evaluates data on the levels of pesticide residue on popular produce. Here's the lowdown on this year's report.

By Macaela Mackenzie and Renee Cherry
Updated March 18, 2021
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Grocery shopping can come with a weekly dilemma. Should you pick up organic foods or go with whatever produce is cheapest and most convenient? It's a healthy nosh either way, so how bad can it really be, right?

If you're someone who aims to go organic when it really makes a difference — and conventional when it doesn't — you can use the Environmental Working Group's latest report to guide your purchases. EWG, a nonprofit that specializes in research and education pertaining to human health and the environment, just announced its 2021 Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen guides, which are meant to inform shoppers on the types of produce that tend to have the greatest and least amounts of pesticide residue. (Related: 3-Ingredient, Easy Smoothie Recipes for Fast Mornings)

Each year, EWG analyzes data from food safety tests conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA only tests a handful of types of crops each year, and the EWG shopping guides use the most recent data available for each of 46 popular fruits and vegetables. Before testing samples, USDA testers prep foods in the same ways that people would normally do at home, such as rinsing off apples or removing a banana peel. In its most recent guide, EWG reported that nearly 70 percent of conventionally grown fruits and veggies sold in the U.S. are contaminated with pesticide residues.

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Credit: Getty Images

As for the produce with the highest amount of pesticide residue, according to EWG's 2021 Dirty Dozen list? Strawberries and spinach — both of which topped last year's list as well. This year EWG noted that over 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy greens tested positive for two or more types of pesticides. Additional types of produce on this year's Dirty Dozen list include grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, bell and hot peppers, celery, and tomatoes. In other words, these are the types of produce that you might want to (read: probably should) buy organic, as organic fruits and veggies are grown with fewer, if any, synthetic pesticides. (Related: The #1 Trick to See If You Should Buy Organic Produce)

Now, here's a good question: If these fruits and veggies are so contaminated, how are they making it onto your plates? The use of various pesticides is currently approved by the USDA for conventional growers, as pesticides do in fact keep pests off crops. That being said, some experts argue that pesticide residue might have harmful effects on those who consume conventional produce, while others say they're safe in the amounts consumed when eating produce. TL;DR — pesticides overall are a hotly debated topic and, according to the EWG, in "need of reform."

On the flip side, EWG also released its annual Clean Fifteen list, which details the foods that proved to have the lowest amount of pesticide residue. As was the case last year, avocados topped the list. They were followed by sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, frozen sweet peas, eggplant, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, kiwi, cauliflower, mushrooms, honeydew, and, last but not least, cantaloupes. (Related: Meet the Urban Farmer Bringing Organic Produce to the Nation's Capital)

If you're only buying organic produce part of the time, you can use the latest Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists to inform your choices. But more importantly, don't let the list put you into a full-on panic to the point where you're avoiding the produce section altogether, says Elizabeth Shaw, M.S. R.D.M., C.P.T., a certified nutritionist and co-author of Instant Pot Cookbook for Dummies. "The best way to ensure produce safety is to practice properly cleaning your fruits and vegetables," she says. Using water, gently scrub your fruits and veggies when you get home from the grocery store. "If you do this, you are proactively helping to ensure you are eating the safest produce possible, organic or not," says Shaw.

Shaw stresses the important thing to remember is to eat your veggies your fruits and veggies — regardless of which list they fall on. "If you prefer organic, that's great, go for it," she says. "But, if you're like me and choose whichever is on sale that week, rest assured, you are still doing your body and lifelong health good by eating more produce."

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