The New Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods to Eat Organic

I found this article extremely helpful in determining which foods you really should buy organic & which ones you could scrimp & save on if necessary.  –Larry Betz, CSCS

The latest list of foods with the highest pesticide residue includes some familiar fruits and vegetables, and some surprises.
By Dan Shapley

The benefits of eating organic food begin with the farm that refuses to use pesticides or chemical fertilizers to grow the organic produce they ship to grocers. That means workers and farm neighbors aren’t exposed to potentially harmful chemicals, less fossil fuel is converted into fertilizers and healthier soil that should sustain crops for generations to come.
For individuals, organic food also has benefits. Eating organic means avoiding the pesticide residue left on foods and it may even mean more nutritious varietals, although research into that subject has yielded mixed results. While there are few, if any, proven health impacts from consuming trace quantities of pesticides on foods, a growing number of people are taking the precautions to avoid exposure just in case, particularly pregnant women (growing babies are exposed to most of the chemicals that mom consumes) and the parents of young children.
Organic food can cost more, which means many families are loath to shell out the extra cash for organic produce on every shopping trip. That’s what makes the Environmental Working Group’s annual list of the dirty dozen foods so useful. The group analyzes Department of Agriculture data about pesticide residue and ranks foods based on how much or little pesticide residue they have. They estimate that individuals can reduce their exposure by 80% if they switch to organic when buying these 12 foods.
The USDA and representatives from the farm and food industry are quick to remind consumers that the government sets allowable pesticide residue limits it deems safe and the produce for sale in your grocery store should meet those standards. Watchdogs like Environmental Working Group see those limits as too liberal and use the Dirty Dozen List as a teaching tool to educate consumers about the benefits of organic food.
Even the Environmental Working Group says that the benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables far outweigh the known risks of consuming pesticide residue. always favors educating consumers so that they can make the decision for themselves.

Note: The 2011 Dirty Dozen List reflects testing data from the 2010 harvest and because some pesticide use is dependent on weather conditions that vary by farm, it may not reflect the pesticide residue on produce in your grocery store. That’s why we include not only those fruits and vegetables on Environmental Working Group’s current list, but produce that has made the list in the past, as well as information about pesticides used to produce meat, dairy and some other favorite foods that aren’t on Environmental Working Group’s latest Dirty Dozen List. In general, tree fruits, berries, & leafy greens dominate the list. Since the USDA tests produce after a typical household preparation, fruits and vegetables with thick skins that are removed before eating (melons, avocado, corn, etc.) tend to have the lowest amounts of pesticide residue. If you don’t see a favorite food here, check ‘What’s On My Food’, a project of the Pesticide Action Network that makes the same USDA pesticide residue testing data available in an easy-to-use database.

1. Apples

Topping the 2011 Dirty Dozen List is a tree fruit that always makes the list: Apples (ranked No. 2 in 2009 and No. 4 in 2010). More than 40 different pesticides have been detected on apples due to fungus and insect threats which prompt farmers to spray various chemicals on their orchards. Not surprisingly, pesticide residue is also found in apple juice and applesauce, making all apple products smart foods to buy organic.

Some recommend peeling apples to reduce exposure to pesticide residue, but be aware that you’re peeling away many of the fruit’s most beneficial nutrients when you do so!

Can’t find organic apples? Safer alternatives include watermelon, bananas and tangerines.

2. Celery

Another perennial food on the Dirty Dozen List is celery. It’s a good one to commit to memory, since it doesn’t fit the three main categories of foods with the highest pesticide residue (tree fruits, berries and leafy greens). USDA tests have found more than 60 different pesticides on celery.

Can’t find organic celery? Safer alternatives with a similar crunch include broccoli, radishes and onions.

3. Strawberries

Strawberries are always on the list of Dirty Dozen foods, in part because fungus prompts farmers to spray and pesticide residue remains on berries sold at market. Nearly 60 different pesticides have been found on strawberries, though fewer are found on frozen strawberries.

Can’t find organic strawberries? Safer alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.

4. Peaches

Another tree fruit that always makes the dirty dozen lists: Peaches. More than 60 pesticides have been found on peaches and nearly as many in single-serving packs, but far fewer in canned peaches.

Safer alternatives include watermelon, tangerines, oranges and grapefruit.

5. Spinach

Leading the leafy green pesticide residue category is spinach, with nearly 50 different pesticides. (While frozen spinach has nearly as many, canned has had fewer detected pesticides.)

6. Nectarines (Imported)

Nectarines, at least imported ones, are among the most highly contaminated tree fruits. Domestic nectarines don’t test with as much pesticide residue, but overall 33 pesticides have been detected on nectarines.

Can’t find organic nectarines? Try pineapple, papaya or mango.

7. Grapes (Imported)

Another perennial entrant on the Dirty Dozen List is imported grapes, which can have more than 30 pesticides. Raisins, not surprisingly, also have high pesticide residue tests. Makes you wonder about wine, eh?

8. Sweet Bell Peppers

Another fruit that usually makes the Dirty Dozen List because it tends to have high pesticide residue is the sweet bell pepper in all of its colorful varieties. Nearly 50 different pesticides have been detected on sweet bell peppers.

9. Potatoes

America’s favorite vegetable is the potato; unfortunately, more than 35 pesticides have been detected on potatoes in USDA testing. Sweet potatoes offer a delicious alternative with less chance of pesticide residue.

10. Blueberries

Blueberries usually make the Dirty Dozen List, since more than 50 pesticides have been detected as residue on them. Frozen blueberries have proven to be somewhat less contaminated. Unfortunately, obvious alternatives like cranberries and cherries, while they may not make the Dirty Dozen List this year, are often contaminated themselves. For breakfast cereal, if you can’t find organic blueberries, consider topping with bananas.

11. Lettuce

Joining spinach in the leafy greens category, lettuce makes the list of Dirty Dozen foods with the most pesticides. More than 50 pesticides have been identified on lettuce. If you can’t find organic lettuce, alternatives include asparagus.

12. Kale (Tied with Collard Greens)

A super food, traditionally kale is known as a hardier vegetable that rarely suffers from pests and disease, but it was found to have high amounts of pesticide residue when tested in each of the past two years.

Can’t find organic kale? Safer alternatives include cabbage, asparagus and broccoli. Dandelion greens also make a nutritious alternative.

12. Collard Greens (Tied with Kale)

Put on par with kale for the 2011 Dirty Dozen List, collard green tests have revealed more than 45 pesticides. Alternatives include Brussels sprouts, dandelion greens and cabbage.

Fatty Meats

While it doesn’t make the list of Dirty Dozen foods, meat makes our list. While there are generally no pesticides found in beef muscle, fat is another story. Fewer than a dozen pesticides have been detected in beef fat, but among them are long-lived chemicals that accumulate in human fats just as they do in beef cattle. The same pattern holds for other meats, with pork fat and chicken thighs tallying the most pesticide residue, while lean meat comes up clean.


Pesticides and other man-made chemicals have been found in human breast milk, so it should come as no surprise that they have been found in dairy products, too. Twelve different pesticides have been identified in milk, and milk is of special concern because it is a staple of  most children’s diets.


While the watchdog lists don’t include data on coffee, many of the coffee beans we buy are grown in countries with lax regulations for use of pesticides. Look for the USDA Organic label to ensure you’re not buying beans that have been grown or processed with the use of potentially harmful chemicals.

Go a step or two further, and look for the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance (or Bird Friendly) labels to ensure that your purchase supports farmers who are paid fairly and treated well. And look for shade-grown (Rainforest Alliance- or Bird Friendly-certified) varieties for the trifecta; that way you know the coffee is being grown under the canopy of the rainforest, leaving those ancient trees intact, along with the wildlife – particularly songbirds – that call them home.


Similar to coffee, there’s no watchdog reporting on pesticides found in wine, but grapes are among the crops that are typically heavily doused with pesticides to ward off fungus and bugs. Fortunately, there are more and more fine organic wines on the market. Many will be labeled “made with organic grapes,” rather than “organic wine” because winemakers add sulfites as a preservative to allow for long-distance shipping.


Like coffee beans, cocoa beans are grown across the developing world, sometimes in countries without strict laws governing use of pesticides, worker rights or other factors we’d consider basic in the U.S. Buying organic chocolate ensures your sweet treat isn’t harming the environment or workers elsewhere.

Buy the Clean 15

If the cost of buying all organic isn’t within your budget, fear not. Check out The Daily Green’s list of fruit and vegetables so clean of pesticides you don’t have to buy organic. (Of course, buying organic is always a good choice for the health of farms and farm workers, regardless of the residue left on the end product.) The feature also includes tips for buying, cleaning, storing and using each fruit and vegetable – as well as delicious recipes! Here’s a look at the Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Clean 15 list:

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet Corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mango
  8. Eggplant
  9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet Potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms

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