By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director
A healthy diet begins with lots of fruits and vegetables, but some of your family’s favorites may contain startling amounts of harmful pesticides.
Non-organic farmers spray synthetic pesticides on crops to kill weeds and insects – and the toxicity doesn’t stop there. As they grow, plants absorb pesticides, and residues linger on fruit and vegetable skins all the way to your kitchen, even after you wash them.
In the 2016 edition of its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, EWG breaks down the latest research on pesticide levels on fruits and vegetables, and how you can make smart choices for your family. Here’s what you should know.
1. Eating foods with traces of pesticides is bad for your health – especially for kids.
Although the full scope of the threat is not yet known, research confirms that pesticide exposure can harm us in serious ways. Conventional growers use synthetic pesticides that can damage our brain and nervous system, disrupt our hormones and contribute to cancer.
In developing children, pesticide exposure contributes to neurological problems, which impair learning, memory and attention.
Kids eat more food than adults relative to their size, and are less capable of processing chemicals that enter their small bodies. Both factors make them especially vulnerable to the hazardous effects of these chemicals.
2. Some fruits and vegetables have a lot of pesticide on them. Others aren’t so bad.
And you might be surprised which are which. In the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, EWG names the fresh fruits and veggies that contain the highest and lowest amounts of pesticides when you bring them home from the market.
EWG analyzed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, whose tests revealed traces of at least one pesticide on nearly 75 percent of fruit and vegetable samples tested in 2014, the most recent year available.
Topping the Dirty Dozen list this year are strawberries, followed by apples, nectarines, peaches, celery and grapes. On the Clean Fifteen list, heart-healthy avocados take the number one spot. (That’s especially good news for babies, since avocados make an excellent early solid food.)
3. There’s more than one way to protect your family from pesticide on produce.
The surest way to limit pesticides on your fruits and veggies is to buy USDA-certified organic varieties, but these can be costly and hard to find.
We recommend buying organic whenever you can, but if your options are limited or your budget is tight, consult EWG’s list and start prioritizing your purchases.
Strawberries and apples? Organic is best. Avocados and pineapple? Conventional is a good and healthy option.
4. Washing produce is a must – but it doesn’t completely remove pesticide residues.
Some people think that thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables will remove all traces of pesticides. Cleaning produce removes dirt, traces of human handling and reduces some pesticides – but not all of them.
USDA tests fruit and vegetables as we typically eat them: washed and, when applicable, peeled (bananas, for example). That means EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists reflect pesticide levels on produce after it’s already been washed.
Pesticide levels are even higher when fruits and veggies aren’t washed, so rub your produce under running water before eating, even when you buy organic.
5. It’s always a good choice to feed your family fruits and vegetables, whether conventional or organic.
Eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is one of the healthiest choices we can make, yet far too few people do. Less than a third of adults get the recommended daily amount – at least two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables – according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rates are even lower for teens.
While it’s important to minimize your exposure to pesticides, regularly eating fruits and vegetables is the far bigger win for you and your loved ones.