Worried about pesticides in your fruit and vegetables? Meet the ‘clean fifteen’ and the ‘dirty dozen’

Worried about pesticides in your fruit and vegetables? Meet the ‘clean fifteen’ and the ‘dirty dozen’

in News
Charlotte Flechet
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food For Cities programme director

Last week, the US-based Environmental Working Group (EWG) issued its 2016 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™. Published annually since 2004, the guide provides a thorough analysis of pesticide contamination of the most popular fruit and vegetables consumed in the US. It bases its analysis on the results of about 35,200 samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In the guide, it provides a list of the ‘cleanest’ and ‘dirtiest’ fruit and vegetables. See below to find out which types of produce made it on their lists.

Conventional strawberries topped the reports’ ranking for “dirty” fruit and vegetables: 98% of strawberries contained detectable pesticide residues. Analyses revealed that some sampled strawberries even contained residues from 17 different types of pesticides. Apples, leafy greens, cucumbers, grapes and potatoes also made it to the top 12 – the “Dirty Dozen” – raising concerns about consumers’ safety.

On the positive side, pineapples, sweet corn, onions, mangoes and eggplants are among the fruit and vegetables that contain the lowest levels of pesticide residues and concentrations, according to the EWG’s guide. Avocados topped the Clean Fifteen’ list: only 1% of samples tested contained any detectable pesticides.

The use of agricultural chemicals is increasingly being monitored and regulated in the United States. Although the data was exclusively gathered in the USA, its conclusions raise concern about the levels of chemicals that can be found in less regulated markets, such as Vietnam. Traceability of food provenance and production methods is poorly regulated and enforced in Vietnam, where food quality still receives less attention than quantity [1]. Although not all pesticides are related to health concerns, many have been linked to increased risks of cancer, hormone disruptions, problems in developmental, reproductive and neurological health, as well as impaired brain development for young children. According to a 2012 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, pesticide exposure in early life can be linked to “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems" [2]. It is not yet well-understood how different pesticides interact with each other when ingested.

The widespread use of agricultural chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides is not only a concern for consumers but also for the communities that live in the surroundings of non-organic farms. This is particularly worrying considering that even small levels of toxic chemical contaminations can be detrimental to young children’s health [3]. Farmland pollution is also a major concern in Vietnam as inadequate use of fertilisers was shown to increase the toxicity of soil and lead to lower production yields [4].

According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development of Vietnam, the import of plant protection chemicals has increased tremendously from 20,000 tons in 2005 to 50,000 tons in 2014. It is also said that the amount of fertilisers used has increased by 500% since 1985 [5], which illustrates the increasing popularity of agricultural chemicals.

Interestingly, research published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives (2005) revealed that following an organic diet for only five days is enough to almost entirely eliminate pesticide residues from the bodies of school children.

The Environmental Working Group therefore recommends consumers to choose organic over conventional produce when buying fruit and vegetables from the “Dirty Dozen” list, even if they are washed and peeled. Cooking conventional vegetables is also recommended in order to reduce their pesticide levels.

In Vietnam, a large-scale, nation-wide monitoring of pesticide residues in crops such as EWG’s guide has not yet been established (Almvik et al., 2007) [6]. However, the study carried out by EWG provides some valuable insight into the risks associated with the consumption of unsafe vegetables, particularly for the youth and vulnerable groups.

If you want to know where you can buy safe and organic vegetables, have a look at our Safe & Organic Food Finder (SOFF). SOFF helps you find stores in your neighbourhood that sell safe and organic vegetables. You can visit the SOFF website by surfing to www.soff.asia. You can also download the SOFF Android app by clicking this link and the Apple iOS app by clicking this link. Just enter your address, pick a store and buy vegetables.

For more information about the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™, visit the Environmental Working Group’s website at: https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/press.php

These fruit and vegetables are on the ‘Dirty Dozen’ list and should best be bought organic:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Apples
  3. Nectarines
  4. Peaches
  5. Celery
  6. Grapes
  7. Cherries
  8. Spinach
  9. Tomatoes
  10. Sweet Bell Peppers
  11. Cherry Tomatoes
  12. Cucumbers

These fruit and vegetables are the ones on the ‘Clean Fifteen’:

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Cabbage
  5. Sweet Peas (Frozen)
  6. Onions
  7. Asparagus
  8. Mangos
  9. Papayas
  10. Kiwi
  11. Eggplant
  12. Honeydew Melon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Cantaloupe Melon
  15. Cauliflower

[1] Tran Cong Thang and Dinh Thi Bao Linh (2015). How to Support Poor Vietnamese Consumers to Deal with Food Price Volatility and Food Safety Issues. IDS Bulletin Vol. 46/6. [http://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/bitstream/handle/123456789/7760/IDSB_46_6_10.1111-1759-5436.12190.pdf?sequence=1 ]

[2] Environmental Working Group (2016) Executive Summary - EWG's 2016 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce™ [https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/summary.php]

[3] Idem

[4] VietnamNetBridge (2015). Increased pesticide, fertiliser use contaminating farmland [http://english.vietnamnet.vn/fms/environment/132563/increased-pesticide--fertiliser-use-contaminating-farmland.html]

[5] Idem

[6] Almvik, Svendsen, and Giang (2007). Food safety: Pesticide residue analysis in Norway and Vietnam. [http://www.bioforsk.no/ikbViewer/Content/31551/Pesticide%20residue%20analysis%20in%20Norway%20and%20Vietnam%20Abstract.pdf]