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Cranberries, beloved by nutritionists for their anti-inflammatory properties, have joined fiber-rich green beans on this year’s Dirty Dozen of non-organic foods with the most pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental health nonprofit.
In the 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, researchers analyzed test data on 46,569 samples of 46 fruits and vegetables conducted by the US Department of Agriculture. Each year, a rotating list of produce is tested by USDA staff who wash, peel or grate fruits and vegetables as consumers would before the food is tested for 251 different pesticides.
Dirty Dozen 2023
2023 Dirty Dozen (most to least polluted)
As in 2022, strawberries and spinach continued to hold the top two spots on the Dirty Dozen, followed by three greens – kale, collards and mustard greens. Peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, grapes, hot and hot peppers, and cherries are listed next. Blueberries and green beans were 11th and 12th on the list.
A total of 210 pesticides were found in the 12 foods, the report said. Kale, collards and mustard greens contained the highest number of different pesticides – 103 species – followed by hot and hot peppers with 101.
“Some of the USDA tests show traces of pesticides that have long been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency. Much more stringent federal regulation and oversight of these chemicals is needed,” the report said.
“Pesticides are toxic by design,” said Jane Houlihan, former senior vice president of research for EWG. He did not participate in the exhibition.
“They are intended to harm living organisms, and this inherent toxicity has implications for children’s health, including the potential risk of hormone dysfunction, cancer and damage to the developing brain and nervous system,” said Houlihan, who is now director of research for healthy babies. , Bright Futures, an organization dedicated to reducing babies’ exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
However, there is good news. Concerned consumers can consider choosing conventionally grown vegetables and fruits from EWG’s Clean 15, a list of crops that tested lower in pesticides, the report says. Almost 65% of the foods on the list had no detectable levels of pesticides.
2023 Clean 15
2023 Clean 15 (least to most polluted)
Avocados topped the 2023 list of least contaminated produce again this year, followed by sweet corn in second place. Pineapple, onions and papaya, frozen sweet peas, asparagus, honeydew melon, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, mango, sweet potatoes, watermelon and carrots made up the rest of the list.
Exposure to a variety of pesticide-free foods is especially important during pregnancy and throughout childhood, experts say. Growing children need the combined nutrients, but are also more affected by pollutants such as pesticides.
“Exposure to pesticides during pregnancy may 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 problems, as well as cancer.”
AAP recommends parents and caregivers consult the buyer’s 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 percent of blueberry and green bean samples had worrisome findings, the report said.
In 2016, the last time green beans were inspected, samples contained 51 different pesticides, according to the report. The latest round of testing found 84 different pest killers, and 6% of the samples tested positive for acephatic, an insecticide banned from use on vegetables in 2011 by the EPA.
“A sample of non-organic green beans had acephate 500 times the limit set by the EPA,” said Alexis Temkin, an EWG toxicologist specializing in toxic chemicals and pesticides.
When they were last tested in 2014, blueberries contained over 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 functioning of the nervous system, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A high dose of these chemicals can cause difficulty breathing, nausea, lower heart rate, vomiting, weakness, paralysis and seizures, the CDC said. If exposed over a long period of time to smaller amounts, people may “feel tired or weak, irritable, depressed or forgetful.”
Why would the levels of some pesticides be higher today than in the past?
“We’ve seen declines in some pesticides since the early 1990s, when the Food Quality Protection Act came into effect,” Temkin said. “But we’re also seeing increases in other pesticides that have been substituted in their place, which may not be safer. This is why there is a push towards an overall reduction in pesticide use.”
Chris Novak, president and CEO of CropLife America, an industry association, told CNN 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. “Misinformation about pesticides and different growing methods is causing hesitation and confusion, leading many consumers to choose to skip fresh produce altogether.”
The Institute of Food Technologists, an industry association, told CNN that emphasis should be placed on meeting legal pesticide limits that have been established by significant scientific consensus.
“We all agree that the best-case scenario for pesticide residues would be as close to zero as possible, and scientific efforts to further reduce pesticide residues should continue,” said Bryan Hitchcock, IFT’s head of science and technology.
Many fruits and vegetables 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 have little to no pesticide residue, Temkin said.
“If a person switches to an organic diet, the pesticide levels in their urine drop rapidly,” Temkin told CNN. “We see it over and over again.”
If organic isn’t available or is too expensive, “I would definitely recommend peeling and washing it well with water,” Temkin said. “Stay away from detergents or other advertised items. Flushing with water will reduce pesticide levels.”
Additional tips for washing produce, provided by the US Food and Drug Administration, include:
- Washing hands with hot water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fresh produce.
- Rinse produce before peeling so that dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the knife to the fruit or vegetable.
- Using a clean vegetable brush to scrub tight produce like apples and melons.
- Dry the products with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce any bacteria that may be present.