Editor’s Note: Sign up for CNN’s Eat, But Better: Mediterranean Style. Our eight-part guide shows you a delicious, expert-backed eating lifestyle that will boost your health for life.
Blueberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans in this year’s Dirty Dozen of non-organic produce with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental health organization.
In the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed test data from 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of products is tested by USDA employees who wash, peel or scrub fruits and vegetables as consumers would before examining the food for 251 different pesticides.
Dirty Dozen 2023
2023 Dirty Dozen (most to least contaminated)
As in 2022, strawberries and spinach occupy the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three leafy greens: collard greens, collard greens, and mustard. This was followed by peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, peppers, hot peppers and cherries. Blueberries and green beans were 11th and 12th on the list.
According to the report, a total of 210 pesticides were found on the 12 foods. Kale, collard greens and mustard greens contain the highest number of different pesticides — 103 types — followed by hot peppers and bell peppers with 101.
“Some USDA tests show traces of pesticides long banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much stricter federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report said.
“Pesticides are toxic by nature,” said Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG. She was not involved in the report.
“They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including a potential risk of hormone dysfunction, cancer, and damage to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now research director for Healthy Babies. , Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing infant exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
However, there is good news. Concerned consumers may want to consider choosing conventionally grown fruits and vegetables from the EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested the lowest for pesticides, the report said. Nearly 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticides.
2023 Clean 15
2023 Clean 15 (least to most polluted)
Avocados again topped the list of least contaminated products of 2023 this year, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onions and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mangoes, sweet potatoes, watermelon and carrots made up the rest of the list.
Experts say exposure to a variety of pesticide-free foods is especially important during pregnancy and during childhood. Developing children need the combined nutrients, but are also hit harder by contaminants such as pesticides.
“Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy can lead to an increased risk of birth defects, low birth weight and fetal death,” noted the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Childhood exposure has been linked to attention and learning difficulties, as well as cancer.”
The AAP represents parents and carers consult the shopping guide if they are concerned about their child’s exposure to pesticides.
Houlihan, director of Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, agreed: “Any choice to reduce pesticides in the diet is a good choice for a child.”
Nearly 90% of blueberry and green bean samples had worrisome findings, the report said.
In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, the samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of testing found 84 different pest controllers and 6% of the samples tested positive for acephate, an insecticide banned by the EPA in 2011 for use in the vegetable.
“A sample of non-organic green beans had acephate at levels 500 times the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at the EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides.
In the last test in 2014, blueberries contained more than 50 different pesticides. Testing in 2020 and 2021 found 54 different pesticides – about the same amount. Two insecticides, phosmet and malathion, were found in nearly 10% of blueberry samples, although levels have declined over the past decade.
Acephate, phosmet and malathion are organophosphates, which interfere with the normal function of the nervous system, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A high dose of these chemicals can cause breathing problems, nausea, a lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, according to the CDC. Exposure to smaller amounts for extended periods of time can make people “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed or forgetful.”
Why might the levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?
“Since the early 1990s, when the Food Quality Protection Act came into effect, we’ve seen a decline in some pesticides,” Temkin said. “But we are also seeing an increase in other pesticides that have taken their place and may not be safer. That is why we strive for an overall reduction in the use of pesticides.”
Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN that the report “deliberately misrepresented” USDA data.
“Farmers use pesticides to control insects and fungal diseases that threaten the health and safety of fruits and vegetables,” Novak said via email. “Incorrect information about pesticides and different growing methods leads to hesitation and confusion, leading many consumers to skip fresh produce altogether.”
The Institute of Food Technologists, an industry association, told CNN that an emphasis should be placed on meeting regulatory limits on pesticides set by significant scientific consensus.
“We all agree that the best-case scenario of pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible and that continued science-based efforts should be made to further reduce residual pesticides,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s chief. science and technology officer.
Many fruits and veggies with higher levels of pesticides are critical to a balanced diet, so don’t give them up, experts say. Instead, avoid most pesticides by choosing to eat organic versions of the most contaminated crops. While organic foods aren’t more nutritious, the majority contain little to no pesticide residue, Temkin said.
“When someone switches to an organic diet, the levels of pesticides in their urine decrease rapidly,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it over and over again.”
If bioavailable or too expensive, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing thoroughly with water,” Temkin said. “Stay away from detergents or other advertised items. Rinsing with water will reduce the pesticide content.”
Additional product washing tips provided by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration include:
- Hand wash with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
- Rinse products before peeling so that dirt and bacteria do not transfer from the blade to the fruit or vegetable.
- Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm produce like apples and melons.
- Dry the product with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce any bacteria present.