Life in Balance: What’s the deal with the “Dirty Dozen”?

Should You Be Eating Organic? (A Seat at the Table)

Last month the Environmental Working Group released their Dirty Dozen list for 2019. This list, in theory, reports the produce that is “highest” in pesticide residue and informs consumers of the top foods that they should buy organic. This list causes a lot of fear and anxiety around food. The bottom line is that eating fruits and vegetables is known to be good for us, they provide a wide range of vitamins and minerals, can help protect against heart disease, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer. We also know that most Americans are not eating enough fruits and vegetables. So the concern over organic versus conventional really frustrates me, because the main focus should be on eating more vegetables and fruits regardless of whether they’re organic or conventional, frozen or canned or fresh, the bottom line is that more is better.

A breakdown from the Survivor’s Table on what to know about the “Dirty Dozen”

If you choose to buy organic for sustainability reasons, or because you think it tastes better, that’s great. But the benefits of all produce (organic or conventional) is much greater than any perceived threat of pesticide residue on foods. You can calculate your risk of pesticide exposure at safe fruits and veggies, but even the most devoted fruit-loving child would have a hard time eating over 181 servings of strawberries in a day, the amount calculated by the USDA as safe even with the highest pesticide residue levels. So all the fear about pesticide residue is hype.

Regardless of what type of produce you’re buying, you should still plan on washing it before eating. Washing produce with cold or warm running water is sufficient, you don’t need any special cleaning products, you don’t need to use soap. At most, you can use a scrubbing brush for things like potatoes that may have some hard-packed dirt on them.

This week I went to a great conference and had the opportunity to hear from Common Ground an organization of farmers that help clarify myths and misconceptions around food production. It’s important to recognize that just because something is labeled as organic, doesn’t mean that pesticides are not used. There are over 40 pesticides used in organic farming practices. These pesticides are considered more natural than the pesticides used in conventional farming. I was also fascinated to learn that farmers are required to go to annual trainings on pesticide use and must keep detailed records of when they spray any pesticides, including weather conditions. While organic does mean that the product is non-GMO, GMO is another one of those fear tactics. There are currently only 11 GMO products and not all of them are even available in grocery stores at this time. So again, marketers are taking advantage of something that’s confusing and advertising that this and that aren’t GMO, when really there aren’t that many GMO products to begin with.

The bottom line is that we shouldn’t fear our food. Fruits and vegetables provide a multitude of health benefits. So let’s focus on eating more delicious produce and worry less about what’s on the label.

Do you buy organic or conventional? What’s your favorite spring vegetable/fruit that you can’t wait to eat?

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3 thoughts on “Life in Balance: What’s the deal with the “Dirty Dozen”?

  1. Hi, you have a lovely website, but I wanted to comment because I’m a registered dietitian who not only supports the EWG Dirty Dozen, but actually doesn’t think it goes far enough. Make no mistake: Consumers DO have reason for concern, not only for their own health, but for the health of farmworkers, water quality, and unintended consequences on non-target organisms. The produce and pesticide industries would love for dietitians to get behind their rhetoric, and they do a great job infiltrating our profession. But I encourage you to dig deeper into the biological sciences. Here’s a link to a recent article that may be helpful to you, written by pediatricians trained in how to recognize and manage pesticide poisonings in children::
    Also, the Columbia University’s Center for Children’s Environmental Health is a better resource than industry-backed websites such as Common Ground (supported by the corn and soy producers):
    And a great new book edited by Aly Cohen, MD, and Fred Vom Saal, Ph.D. ( I know Fred from my work at the University of MO). The title is “Integrative Environmental Medicine” and the chapter on pesticides is terrific, including a “how to” avoid pesticides because what might seem like insignificant amounts of residue, have an impact, especially for the most vulnerable populations – children, and farm workers.

    Do organic farmers use pesticides? Only when necessary, and the ones selected tend to be less toxic. The organic farmer will ask: WHY do I have this pest, and typically the more biodiverse the field, the less pest pressure. Also, the organic farmer will not use seeds that have been coated with neonicotinoid pesticides (all GMO corn seeds are treated, as per a Monsanto rep.), The list of allowed pesticides can be found here:
    Residues are less on organic vs. conventional produce.

    The best dietitians think critically and from a food systems perspective, with a focus on first doing no harm, and taking precaution when there is doubt.
    Good luck in your future work.
    Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

    1. Thanks so much for your comment Melinda. I appreciate your perspective. It is a very complicated issue, and I’ll definitely look at those links you shared. For me, I think the bottom line is that the benefits of fruits and vegetables are so numerous that it’s discouraging to have people frightened away from eating produce because they can’t afford or don’t have access to organic.

  2. I think part of our work as RDs could be to help change the system, so that all people have access to food produced without toxins, and how we can affect policies to make good food affordable to all. My colleague in Rural Sociology at the U. of MO, Mary Hendrickson, Ph.D., who works to promote sustainable food systems, says we have to work on economic policies (such as living wage legislation) so that all have access to the highest quality food.If these issues are of interest to you, consider joining the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Practice group within the Academy. We’d love to have you.

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