Have A Plant®: The Plant-Forward Eating Guide
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Should I Be Afraid Of The Dirty Dozen?


No, you shouldn’t fear any fruits or vegetables. The “Dirty Dozen” list, published since 2004 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), invokes unsubstantiated fear that is counterproductive to helping Americans eat more fruits and vegetablesThe “Dirty Dozen” is an annual list that ranks fruits and vegetables with what the EWG deems as a dangerous amount of pesticide residues. The 2021 list was released on March 17 and is based on publicly available data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).The USDA leads the Pesticide Data Program (PDP), a national initiative that samples food products and compiles information on pesticide residue levels. EWG uses this data to choose and rank the fruit and vegetable items on the “Dirty Dozen” list.

This year, we are particularly troubled by the inclusion of citrus on the list, especially given the benefits of citrus on immune health – coupled with the hit that citrus farmers just took in Texas during such a turbulent year.

The latest USDA PDP report found more than 99 percent of the samples tested had residues well below the safety standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with almost half having no detectable pesticide residues at all. 

Additionally, in regard to citrus specifically, the Alliance for Food and Farming noted that EWG’s own “sampling” results actually underscore the safety of citrus fruits. The majority of the residue levels EWG found on citrus would be allowable under national organic standards.  According to the USDA, the organic regulations allow residues up to five percent of the EPA safety tolerance. Almost all of the EWG samples had residues ranging from no detections at all to 3.95% of EPA’s safety tolerance.

The “Dirty Dozen” list has received criticism from many experts within the scientific community, and for good reason. The Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) recently completed a comprehensive analysis of the methods used by the EWG to create this list. Our analysis reveals a number of issues, including:

  • Flawed methodology
  • Incorrect findings and misleading messaging
  • Inconsistencies with authoritative bodies, including several government agencies and respected academic experts

Irresponsible data interpretation is not the only issue at play. The real offense is that the report is sparking fear about eating fruits and vegetables among consumers, in the midst of a global pandemic and what many would say is a chronic “consumption crisis” — one with no end in sight unless we start doing things differently.

I know you may be thinking — of course PBH is going to say that we are in a fruit and vegetable consumption crisis. Well, it’s not just us. Global government agencies, health organizations, scientists, and public health advocates agree that fruit and vegetable intake must be increased. And, the data backs this up. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans continue to recommend increased intake of fruits and vegetables since its inception in 1980—implying that Americans are not consuming enough. Food intake surveys validate this, demonstrating a chronic, consistent and persistent gap between consumption and recommendations that spans decades. That brings us to the crisis at hand.

While public health experts agree that consumers should increase their intake of fruits and vegetables, continuous efforts to encourage greater consumption have been unsuccessful, and intake remains well below recommendations. Meanwhile, groups such as the EWG that have consumers’ ears, whether intentional or not, are working against this recommendation.

What We Know About The Benefits Of Fruits And Vegetables

In short, fruits and vegetables, regardless of form (fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice), are closely associated with a multitude of health and well-being benefits. Decades of research and numerous studies confirm that increasing consumption of produce—both conventional and/or organic—improves health and reduces the risk of chronic disease and mortality. For instance, it has been estimated that, if just half of all Americans increased their consumption of a fruit or vegetable by a single serving each day, 20,000 cancer cases could be prevented every year.

Currently, PBH’s recent State of the Plate report notes that Americans currently eat fruits and vegetables on just one occasion or less each day. That fact demonstrates A LOT of room for improvement. 

What We Know About Pesticides In Produce

Two U.S. government agencies’ findings contradict the EWG’s claims. USDA’s Pesticide Data Program employs a rigorous statistical design so that its data for measuring exposure to pesticides can be used to assess the safety of the food supply. As noted previously, findings in its 2018 report indicate that more than 99% of samples tested had residues well below the tolerances established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Additionally, data from the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) shows that close to 50% have no detectable pesticide residue at all. Finally, a peer-reviewed study found that EWG’s suggested substitution of organic forms of produce for conventional forms did not result in any decrease in risk because residues on conventional produce are so minute, if present at all.

Sometimes, the simple answer is the right answer. According to the FDA, washing produce under running tap water can reduce and often eliminate pesticide residues, if they are present at all.

Want to learn more? Here are some more resources to check out:

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak, MS, RDN Blog Post: Irresponsible “Dirty Dozen” Illustrates Inaccuracies, Invokes Fear When We Should Be Eating More Fruits & Veggies

Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD Blog post: No Need To Reduce, It’s Time To Boost! Let’s Cheer, Not Fear Fruits & Veggies

Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD, FAND Blog post: Same Song, Second Verse: The Dirty Dozen is Still a Dirty Lie

Cara Harbstreet, RD Blog Post:
Safe Fruits and Veggies for All: Simple Substitutes for Cooking at Home

Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD Video: Facts Not Fears About Organic vs. Conventional Produce

Dr. Taylor

Taylor Wallace, PhD, CFS, FACN: A Message from Conventional Fruits and Veggies: BITE ME

Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND: Keeping Your Mind and Body Healthy During Quarantine

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