You may have heard of the term “The Dirty Dozen” and "The Clean 15" before, but what does do they actually mean? The US based Environmental Working Group (EWG), coined this term referring to their annual list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables in the United States. But do we actually need to listen and does it hold any weight in Australia?
The EWG has released this list every year since 2004 and their data is based upon thousands of pesticide and insecticide related reports from the US Department of Agriculture as well as the Food & Drug Administration. Unfortunately, for us Aussies we simply don’t have this data available, and although there’s some overlap with the EWG’s findings, it’s too rash to base our assumptions on what we’re putting in our bodies off data we just don't have access to.
Regardless, let's dig in a have a look. In March, 2021, the EWG released their updated annual list of the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15, let's have a look at them both and talk about how relevant they are to us in Australia.
The Dirty Dozen 2021 List
- Kale/Collard Greens
- Bell Peppers & Hot Peppers (Capsicum and Chilli's)
Now again, these are based entirely off data, research and studies done solely in the USA. They still do hold some weight, as 8% of Australia's annual fruit and vegetable imports in 2020 came from the United States. But it's still notable to see, year on year, which fruit and vegetables have the highest percentage of pesticide and chemical contamination. It's interesting to note that this list is mainly composed of produce that has a relatively thin, or consumable skin. Strawberries, Nectarines, Grapes, Cherries, Peaches, etc.
Again, the level on contamination in these fruits and vegetables is largely negligible to humans, but if you are vegetarian or vegan, it might be worth noting. An easy way to bypass fears around pesticides, chemicals and other byproducts of industrial farming, is to purchase your produce locally and ensure that it is certified organic.
The dirty dozen, if anything, gives you a good general guideline as to what fruits and vegetables you should be looking to purchase organically.
Friends of the Earth published their own independent study on the levels of chemicals in Australian produce and found similar results. They also noted that produce imported from India and China is of higher concern due to the use of the sterilising gas Ethylene Chlorohydrin and the insecticide Chlorpyrifos detected most frequently in fruits and vegetables from these countries.
A 2013 RMIT Study found that eating an organic diet for just a week can cause pesticide levels to drop by almost 90% in adults. Dr. Liza Oates published results that saw participants’ urinary dialkylphosphates (DAPs) measurements were 89% lower when they ate an organic diet for seven days compared to a conventional diet for the same amount of time.
The only recent government data we have available for testing dietary exposure to pesticides and chemicals is the 23rd Australian Total Diet Study (ATDS). While the overall recommendations of the study found that “dietary exposure to chemicals from food supply are well within reference health standards”, they still noted which fruits and vegetables contained a higher rate of contaminants, mycotoxins and other chemicals.
So without further ado, here is a revised and localised list of produce with the highest percentage of pesticide detection in Australia. I guess you could call it the "Australian Dirty 8", although it doesn't quite have the same ring to it.
1. Apples 5. Grapes
2. Strawberries 6. Spinach
3. Lettuce 7. Nectarines
4. Pears 8. Peaches
Now we’re not saying you should cut out these important fruits and veggies from your diet at all! The residue found was still well below safety guideline levels, plus the nutrients and health benefits of eating a balanced diet greatly outweigh any potential risks. Eating fruits and veggies will never be unhealthy. It just might be worth spending a little extra time to make sure you're purchasing these fruits and vegetables organically.
A 2011 study from the Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that foods with a larger surface area, such as leafy greens, have more room for pesticides to make their way in. Further, fruits and vegetables with skins that we eat, like apples, grapes and berries were also seen to have higher amounts of residual chemicals.
Contrasting this, produce with thick skins, like watermelon, pineapple and avocados are less likely to be penetrated by pesticides. That's a pretty good segue into the next topic. So let's have a look at the 2021 Clean 15 / Fifteen.
The Clean Fifteen 15 Updated 2021
- Sweet Corn
- Sweet Peas (Frozen)
- Kiwi Fruit
So, contrary to the above list, these are the fruits and vegetables that have the lowest levels of contamination present. This is as a result of a lot of different factors, but the one that they all share is their thicker or layered skin.
It’s also worth noting that washing produce thoroughly with water, or soaking them with white vinegar, doesn't always get rid of all of the chemical residue, as sometimes it grows into the plant itself. But still make sure to always wash your produce well to remove any bad bacteria left on your food from transport, handling or even being picked up and put back down by other shoppers.
If you’re going to buy Organic Produce, the above list is a good place to start or at least err on the side if caution if you’re going to be purchasing them from a supermarket.
As we’ve said before, in season, local and organic is always best for you, your tastebuds and the environment. But if that's not an option don’t let it stop you from eating fruits and vegetables. The benefits of eating whole foods outweigh any risk of pesticide harm, whether they are Organic or not, whether they are on the Dirty Dozen or the Clean Fifteen in 2021, they should still be incorporated into your diet.
Thanks for reading!
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