How to make sense of the dirty dozen

No matter how hard we may try, we all fall victim to the Dirty Dozen. Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen, that is. Every year since 2004, EWG has released a list of the most pesticide-ridden vegetables and fruits. The list is picked from 46 of the most popular fruits and vegetables, so lesser-known vegetables like romanesco and fiddleheads aren’t in the running. Yep, you could pick out any members of the Dirty Dozen in your local grocery store, and chances are, you have. 

For 2021, here’s the Dirty Dozen: 

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach 
  3. Kale, collard, and mustard greens
  4. Nectarines 
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes 
  7. Cherries 
  8. Peaches 
  9. Pears 
  10. Bell and hot Peppers
  11. Celery 
  12. Tomatoes 

You’ve probably eaten some of the Dirty Dozen this week, right? So, you might be wondering what that means for your health. Luckily, you’ll be just fine. The amount of pesticide residue on these fruits and vegetables, even the dirtiest of the dozen, is low. EWG gets the data for their list from the USDA, then presents the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest amounts of pesticides as their Dirty Dozen. The USDA and the FDA’s jobs are to help monitor pesticide usage. The FDA keeps an eye on our food, and the USDA looks into how our food is made. None of the fruits and vegetables that hit the market are going to cause health problems for us as consumers. Actually, the only people who really need to be concerned about pesticide usage are the people who are in direct contact with the pesticides themselves, such as agricultural workers. 


This isn’t to say that the Dirty Dozen isn’t helpful, though. While we should already be careful in where we shop and how we prepare our produce, the list acts as a wake-up call of sorts. Your produce is going to have pesticide residue on them. There are few ways to get around this. However, maybe you’ll buy organic when it comes to strawberries and nectarines, even though you have to go to a farmers’ market to get them. Organic farmers use pesticides, too, but they are organic pesticides, which people usually worry less about. 


Luckily, EWG also comes out with a Clean Fifteen every year. This list pulls the fruit and vegetables that have the lowest amount of pesticides from the same group of produce used for the Dirty Dozen. Guacamole lovers everywhere can rejoice: Avocados came in at a squeaky clean number one this year on the Clean Fifteen.  

Here’s the rest of the Clean Fifteen: 

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions 
  5. Papaya 
  6. Sweet peas (frozen) 
  7. Eggplant 
  8. Asparagus 
  9. Broccoli 
  10. Cabbage 
  11. Kiwi 
  12. Cauliflower 
  13. Mushrooms 
  14. Honeydew melon 
  15. Cantaloupe 

According to the USDA and EWG, these 15 fruits and vegetables have fewer pesticides than their 12 dirty counterparts. So, you can skip the organic section on these products, if you’d like. All of the produce you see at the store is safe to consume, but these 15 are a sure way to play it safe if you’re concerned.  

In recent years, EWG has been getting some negative feedback about its Dirty Dozen. With many Americans not getting enough fruit and vegetables in their diet, some worry that the notion of unclean products will deter customers from the produce section. However, this is not how the list is meant to be interpreted. The compiled list is more of a wake up call for Americans to be aware of what they are purchasing and consuming. There are situations when you may have a choice between organic or non-organic, and the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen can help you decide when you should spend the extra dollar for organic. At the end of the day, we should all know it’s a better health choice to reach for a carton of non-organic strawberries than a bag of chips. If you’re misinterpreting EWG’s list as a warning to not eat produce, then you’d probably not want the health risks associated with a diet lacking fruits and vegetables, either. 

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