The Dirty Dozen Versus The Clean 15

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There is a lot of hype lately about buying organic. However, like most issues, it is not as simple as being black and white. Organic usually carries a pretty hefty price tag and, although it may be healthier for you, if choosing organic means limiting your food choices to a select few you may be robbing yourself of important health benefits by not eating a variety of fruits and vegetables.

So, what is a person to do? For guidelines you can refer to the “Dirty Dozen” versus the “Clean 15.” No, I am not talking about a shootout in an old western movie. Rather, these labels refer to which fruits and vegetables carry more pesticide residue and should be bought either organic or as a natural food item as opposed to those that do not carry so much of the residue and non-organic (and the cheaper price tag) will do just fine.

This whole issue does tend to get complicated. Some think that organic and natural food are interchangeable. Even though some foods may fall into both categories, there is a distinct difference. Organic refers to foods that are produced, manufactured and handled using organic means defined by certifying bodies such as the United States Department of Agriculture and the Organic Foods Product Act. Only foods labeled organic guarantees that no toxic synthetic pesticides, toxic synthetic herbicides or chemical fertilizers are used in the products. No antibiotics or growth hormones are given to the animals.

Organic producers and processors also are subject to announced and unannounced certification inspections by third party inspectors to ensure that they are producing and processing organic products in a manner that families can trust. To carry the organic label a product must contain at least 95% organically produced and processed ingredients. The label must also specify how much of the product qualifies as organic, with at least 70% of the product required to be organic.

Natural foods are food items derived from plants and animals that are not altered chemically or synthesized in any form. Natural foods are minimally processed and contain no hormones, antibiotics or natural flavors.  However, a food labeled natural does not indicate anything about how an animal was raised, fed or cared for. Since there is no FDA or USDA regulation of natural foods, many times foods labeled natural actually contain heavily processed ingredients.

Nearly two-thirds of the 3015 produce samples tested by the USDA in 2013 contained pesticide residue. Of those that did, 165 different pesticides were identified. No wonder organic produce sales spiraled from 5.4 billion dollars in 2005 to an estimated 15 billion in 2015.

This is where the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15” come into play. Consumer watch groups such as the Environmental Working Group lists the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue and those with the least.

Currently the “Dirty Dozen” consists of (in order of worst to least) apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes. Many of these contain not just one, but up to 60 different pesticide residues. When buying these it is best to spend the extra nickel and go organic.

Recently this list was expanded to highlight two types of food that contain trace levels of highly hazardous pesticides. Leafy greens, kale and collard greens and hot peppers do not meet the traditional “Dirty Dozen” ranking criteria but were frequently found to be contaminated with insecticides toxic to the human nervous system. If these items comprise a large percentage of your diet, it is best to go organic.

The percentages were quite high for all apple, peach and nectarine samples tested. All of these were at least 97% or higher for containing at least one pesticide residue. An average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce. Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries shared 13 different pesticides each.

On the “up” side, 15 fruits and vegetables made the “Clean 15” list. These were avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbage, frozen sweet peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwis, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower and sweet potatoes. Items on this list were least likely to hold pesticide residue, relatively few pesticides were used or there was a low concentration of pesticides.

Avocados were the cleanest with only 19% containing some residue. Samples with no residue were 84% of pineapple samples, 82% of the kiwi, 80% of the papayas, 88% of the mangos and 61% of the cantaloupe. No single fruit sample from the “Clean 15” tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides. Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on the “Clean 15” vegetables. Only 5.5% of these samples had two or more pesticides.

Pesticide residues on our fruits and vegetables has been linked to long term cancer, damage to the nervous and reproductive systems and a cause of birth defects.

You can’t stop eating from the “Dirty Dozen,” nor should you. However, there are things you can do to clean up these fruit and vegetables’ acts. The best solution, if you are in a position to do so, is to plant your own garden. This does not have to be a major project, even container gardens can produce an abundance of clean food. When you grow your own, you know what you are eating and you also get the benefits of exercise while tending to them. The next best thing is to buy from farmers markets where you can actually talk to the farmer to see how they were grown.

When you must buy from supermarkets, there are washing methods that remove more of the pesticide residue than simply rinsing with water. A 2% solution of salt water removes most of the residue from the surface while a solution of 10% vinegar and 90% water to soak the veggies and fruits in will remove even more residue, especially from those with cracks and crevices. Always, always, wash, even if it is just in plain water, any fruit or vegetable before cutting into it. When puncturing with a knife blade, pesticides and other germs on the surface are plunged into the flesh.

Fruits and vegetables are undoubtedly good for you. With the more pesticides being used it just requires a little knowledge on which to buy organic and which not to.