Health & Nutrition

The 2021 Dirty Dozen List: WYNTK

The Environmental Working Group has released its controversial Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists of fresh produce items that consumers should avoid and seek, based on pesticide residue levels. Here's what you need to know.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) just released their annual Dirty Dozen report that ranks 46 produce foods from highest to lowest in regards to the amount of pesticide residues they contain. The first 12 with the “highest levels” are what come to be known as the Dirty Dozen list. Now, before you go throwing out those strawberries again, let’s get the facts from leading health authorities on what you really need to know about the 2021 list.

The Methodology to Obtain the Dirty Dozen Data: Can we trust it?

First and foremost, here is a little backstory on the Dirty Dozen list. According to Carl K Winter, Ph.D. Cooperative Extension Food Toxicologist Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, “The Dirty Dozen list is developed using arbitrary and inappropriate indicators of pesticide exposure and, as such, lacks meaningful scientific merit.”

For example, to obtain the results of the Dirty Dozen list, the EWG uses the same methodology it has for years. Instead of focusing on the actual amounts of pesticide residues found on the particular produce item, it merely focuses on the presence of pesticides. This misinformation then gets shared in the media, leading to further consumer confusion.

Not only do reports annually confirm the safety of both conventionally and organically produced produce (like the California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) 2018 and the USDA Pesticide Data 2018 Report), but so do organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA.)

What many do not know is that organic produce may still contain pesticide residues at or below 5% that are approved by the EPA tolerance levels. This means that if conventional produce were to be tested against these standards as well, many would meet these criteria as well.

Which Foods Made the 2021 List

While many of the same 2020 contenders popped up this year again, like strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, cherries, peaches, pears, celery, and tomatoes, a few new produce picks emerged on the list, including mustard and collard greens as well as hot and bell peppers.

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale / Collard and Mustard Greens
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Bell and Hot Peppers
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes

The report noted two specific pesticides, DCPA, found on mustard and collard greens, and chlorpyrifos, found on hot and bell peppers, as possible human carcinogens that are banned in the European Union.

Do You Need To Be Concerned About These Pesticide Levels?

Dr. Winter shared, “Our typical levels of exposure to all pesticides in all foods, including DCPA on mustard and collard greens, are minuscule in comparison to levels that would be of health concern. If we fed laboratory animals four million times our typical daily DCPA exposure levels every day throughout their lifetimes, that would still not result in any observable health effects in the animals.”

While I completely understand how alarming this information can sound as a parent and health authority myself, it’s important to understand that misleading reporting on specific foods like this has shown through the research to result in less produce consumption by low-income shoppers due to the confusion around produce safety.

Given mustard and collard greens are staple vegetables in cultural cuisines, it’s unfortunate this confusion produced by the Dirty Dozen list is even questioning their safety as a nutritious addition to a diet.

Registered Dietitian and Chef Tessa Nguyen, owner of Taste Nutrition Consulting, brought up a great point. She notes, “Communities of color are always targeted by the fear-mongering marketing techniques regarding all food groups, and produce consumption is no different. This is a nuanced, intersectional issue that transcends just the category of recommended produce. Culturally inclusive nutrition messaging around the safety of all produce would need to be considered when we think of how we can encourage all folx to eat any produce that is accessible, affordable, and culturally appropriate for them.”

Echoing what Dr. Winter said, Sarah Koszyk, MA, RDN, Registered Dietitian Sports Nutritionist, author of 365 Snacks for Every Day of the Year, shared, “When considering what is safe versus not safe, consumers need to be informed about the quantity necessary to consume of that particular food in one sitting, and for hot and bell peppers, adults need to eat over 100 plus servings of the pepper to get a small amount of the pesticide. No one consumes this many peppers in one sitting and many foods in extreme excess cause harm and toxicity. Hot and bell peppers provide so many benefits such as vitamin C, vitamin A, fiber, capsaicin, potassium, beta-carotene, and more. The benefits highly outweigh the minuscule amount when eating only one to three servings of the pepper at one sitting. Eating the produce is more important than having a fear-based restriction or elimination of the produce.”

Nguyen recommends using the Pesticide Residue Calculator to help put into context just how much of a certain food you’d have to eat before it would be a concern. “More often than not”, Nguyen notes, “the amount you’re consuming is significantly lower than the amount that would be of concern.”

What Consumers Need to Know

All produce, regardless if conventionally or organically grown, is safe to eat in the United States. Research continually shows that Americans are eating less produce than ever before, meaning now is not the time to cause further confusion around eating the rainbow amongst the general public, regardless of form.

“People exposed to the Dirty Dozen list tend to have an increase in fear and eat even fewer fruits and vegetables,” notes Koszyk. “The bottom line is whether or not the produce is conventional or organic, fruits and vegetables are packed with essential vitamins, minerals, nutrients, and antioxidants, that are extremely important for optimal health. Eat more fruits and vegetables whether they are fresh, frozen, canned, dried, conventional, or organic.”

Dr. Winter agreed, noting, “The best thing consumers can do for their health is to eat large amounts of fruits and vegetables, period. There is no appropriate scientific justification for avoiding conventional forms of the foods on the Dirty Dozen list.”