Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak
Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist, President & CEO
Produce for Better Health Foundation
It’s that time again. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) will release its annual “Dirty Dozen” list, at a time when inaccurate food fearmongering is more irrelevant than ever. This is an annual list that ranks fruits and vegetables by what EWG deems as dangerous amounts of pesticide residues. In other words, an itemized list of 12 fruits and vegetables to demonize for the year.
What We Know About Communicating Risk & Benefit To Consumers
The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic provided a real-time window into how consumer behavior is influenced by perceived risk. At various points during the last two years, many schools operated virtually, restaurants served takeout only (if they were open at all), and families stayed at home to keep “socially distanced” from others unless absolutely necessary. These past two years demonstrated how consumer behavior can drastically change because of fear.
From previous Produce for Better Health Foundation (PBH) research, we know that even overemphasizing that consumers should eat only fresh produce versus being inclusive of frozen, canned, dried, and 100% juice, results in a decreased intent to consume all types of fruits and vegetables during a time when we need people to eat more. Conversely, inclusive language more strongly and consistently increases consumers’ intent to purchase packaged fruits and vegetables, without decreasing intent to purchase fresh produce.
The same can be seen with the EWG’s list. Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research found that EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list messaging resulted in low income shoppers reporting that they would be less likely to purchase ANY fruits and vegetables – organic or conventional.
In today’s unprecedented world where health, immunity and well-being are extremely relevant, it is more important than ever for consumers to simply eat MORE fruits and vegetables – no matter how they are grown or packaged. Fear-based messaging around pesticide levels is counterproductive during an already anxiety-ridden time.
Here’s the good news. At PBH, we’ve taken a deep dive into the “Dirty Dozen” list and we’re breaking it down in simple terms to help alleviate any fears. We’ve done the homework for you, so you can feel good about eating fruits and vegetables for health and happiness, despite the EWG report.
The “Dirty Dozen” list 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.
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.
The “Dirty Dozen” list has received criticism from many experts within the scientific community, and for good reason. PBH completed a comprehensive analysis into the methods used by the EWG to create this list. Our analysis reveals numerous issues, including:
- Flawed methodology;
- Incorrect findings and misleading messaging; and
- 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 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. Keep reading to get a full appreciation of the context and complexity at play.
What Constitutes A Fruit & Vegetable “Consumption Crisis”?
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans have recommended 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’ ear, whether intentional or not, are working against this recommendation.
The “Dirty Dozen” list, published since 2004, invokes unsubstantiated fear that is counterproductive to helping Americans eat more fruits and vegetables. Period.
What We Know About The Benefits Of Fruits And Vegetables
In short, fruits and vegetables, regardless of type or form (fresh, frozen, canned, dried and 100% juice) as well as production methods, 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, nine out of 10 Americans are not consuming the recommended levels of fruits and vegetables. 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 2020 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.
We Can (And Have To) Do Better
Sure, the “Dirty Dozen” is sensationalistic and might command media coverage. But, does it really help consumers know what healthful behaviors they should prioritize and how to do it? No.
First, we need to agree that we all must do better for the American consumer who is overloaded with “the sky-is-falling” information and is struggling to know what to do to for the health and well-being of themselves and their families. Second, we need to give consumers clear guidance on what they can do to eat and enjoy fruits and vegetables—regardless of production methods or produce forms. Conventional versus organic? Fresh versus frozen? Frozen versus canned? Whole fruit versus 100% juice? All of these distinctions are somewhat semantical in an environment in which we need to support consumers in just eating more fruits and vegetables for their health and well-being
The single most important action consumers can take today to positively impact their health and happiness is to eat more fruits and vegetables. Period.
Fruitsandveggies.org has a wealth of resources to peruse on food safety as well as the health and well-being benefits associated with eating fruits and vegetables. According to the FDA, washing fresh fruits and vegetables under running tap water is a healthful habit and can help remove or eliminate any residues that may be present on fruits and vegetables, if they are present at all. Keep in mind, the health and well-being benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any concerns brought up in reports like these.
And so today, and every day, I invite you all to stay healthy and happy. And here’s a plan. Have A Plant®!
For additional resources and perspectives from various PBH advisors and contributors, visit: Should I Be Afraid of the Dirty Dozen? SPOILER ALERT: The answer is “No.”