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EWG’s 2021 Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Lists

Nearly 70% of fresh, non-organic produce sold in the United States contains residues of pesticides…

That’s the main takeaway from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2021 analysis of pesticides in produce. 

And it could have implications for your bone health.

That’s because pesticides can be pro-oxidant, which means they produce free radicals in your body. And free radicals can trigger low-grade, chronic inflammation –– an underlying cause of bone loss! 

That’s why we recommend buying organic produce when possible –– because the crops are grown using far fewer synthetic pesticides.

But we totally understand that organic options aren’t always available. Plus, they tend to be more expensive.

That’s where the “Clean Fifteen” and “Dirty Dozen” lists come in! They’ll make it easier for you to decide which conventionally grown foods are less likely to contain high levels of pesticides, and which are worth spending a little extra on to go organic.

The 2021 Dirty Dozen

The following 12 fruits and veggies ranked the worst in this year’s analysis.

2021 dirty dozen list infographic

The Dirty Dozen List at a Glance:

  • This year’s dirty dozen is very similar to last year’s. The only new addition to the list is bell & hot peppers, which bump potatoes off the list.
  • Over 90% of strawberry, apple, cherry, spinach, nectarines, and leafy green samples tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • Multiple samples of kale, collard, and mustard greens contained as many as 20 different pesticide residues.

The 2021 Clean Fifteen

The following 15 fruits and veggies contained the least amount and lowest concentration of pesticide residues.

2021 clean 15 list infographic

The Clean Fifteen List at a Glance:

  • The cleanest of all, for the fourth year in a row, is the healthy, fat-rich avocado! Fewer than 2% of avocado samples contained any detectable pesticide residues.
  • The rest of the Clean Fifteen list is largely the same as last year. The fruits and veggies on the list are the same, there were just a few position changes in the middle of the pack.

Want these lists for yourself?

Download the PDF here, print it out, and take it grocery shopping! 

Or if you’d rather have a pictureless version, click here for the picture-free PDF. (I like to stick my list to my kitchen cupboard as a reminder.)

How Are the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen Ranked?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) test thousands of samples of produce sold in America. And the EWG analyzes the samples to determine which produce has the most pesticide residues (the Dirty Dozen) and which has the least pesticide residues (the Clean Fifteen.)

Then the EWG uses their findings to form the “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce.”

To compare pesticide contamination on each food, the EWG uses the following six measures:

  • The percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides.
  • The total number of pesticides found on the crop.
  • The percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides.
  • The average number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • The average amount of pesticides found, measured in parts per million.
  • The maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample.

If you’d like to delve a little further into clean and dirty produce, the EWG publishes a full version of their produce guide. It contains all 46 fruits and veggies involved in the pesticide tests. Check it out to see how produce like lettuce and bananas stack up against the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen.

Does Organic Produce Contain Pesticides?

You might think that if produce is labeled as organic, it’s grown completely free of pesticides. But that isn’t quite the case.

The USDA states that “produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest.”

Now, “prohibited substances” includes most synthetic pesticides. So it’s safe to say that organic produce will have far fewer potentially harmful synthetic pesticides compared to conventionally grown produce on average.

But it’s worth noting that organic growers can use certain synthetic substances on their crops. These are often exceptions to the general rule when there are no natural alternatives. You can see the full list of synthetic substances allowed for use in organic crop production here.

The main takeaway here? No matter if your fruit and veggies are conventionally grown or organic, you should wash them thoroughly! Keep reading to discover the most effective way…

How to Wash Your Fruits and Veggies

The produce in the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists was peeled and rinsed in cold water before testing to mimic how people would prepare food for themselves at home. 

This shows that washing your produce doesn’t remove all pesticides. But the EWG states that unwashed produce will contain more pesticides than washed produce.

So, it’s important to wash your produce! While the Clean Fifteen boasts less pesticide residue than the Dirty Dozen list, you still need to wash your produce to ensure you’re consuming the least possible amount of dirt, dust, and pesticide residue.

But what’s the most effective way to wash your fruits and veggies? Here are a few tips from the FDA to help you out…

Don’t:

  • Wash fruit and veggies with soap or detergent
  • Use an abrasive brush on delicately skinned fruit

Do:

  1. Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds before and after preparing fruit and veggies.
  2. Rinse your produce under running water before you peel or cut it, to prevent any bacteria transfer from the knife to the produce.
  3. Soak produce with ridges and crevices (like broccoli and cauliflower) for a few minutes longer.
  4. For produce with thick skin, use a gentle vegetable brush to help lift away additional pesticides and microbes.
  5. Dry your fruit and veggies when you’ve finished washing!

You may be thinking that commercial produce washes are missing from our Do list. But studies have shown that cold, distilled tap water is just as effective, if not more so, than costly veggie rinses.

Researchers at the University of Maine tested the following three commercial wash treatments:

  • J0-4 Multi-Functional Food Sterilizer
  • Fit®
  • Ozone Water Purifier XT-301

All three products were tested according to package directions. The researchers tested them on low-bush blueberries.

As well as the three commercial washes, a water wash was also tested. The blueberries were put in distilled water for one to two minutes.

Here are the results:

  • Fit® wash was able to get rid of the same amount of microbes as distilled water. Both reduced the level of pesticide residue compared to unwashed samples.
  • The J0-4 Multi-Functional Food Sterilizer and The Ozone Water Purifier XT-301 removed microbes from the blueberries. But the distilled water was more effective than both of the ozone washes.

Simple water for the win!

But why distilled water? Distilled water has been purified and filtered to remove contaminants. If you don’t have distilled water available, you can use cold tap water instead.

I hope you found this post useful 🙂 Let me know what surprised you most in the comments section below!

Author: Monica Straith, BS

Monica is the PR and Outreach Manager and Fitness Lead at AlgaeCal. She’s an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and Nutrition Specialist, and has a B.S. and B.A. from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she played varsity soccer for four years. Monica pulls from her experience in athletics and health to contribute to AlgaeCal and has also been featured on myfitnesspal blog, Prevention, and Huffington Post.