Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out this little list, you may have heard of it.
The "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" are lists of the fruits and vegetables that are believed to contain the highest and lowest amounts of pesticide residues, respectively.
In the light of current events, I was shocked to learn they plan to roll out the newest update of this list on March 25, 2020. While Americans are panic buying food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, and more, I can’t help but think this is entirely tone-deaf, unnecessary, and downright harmful to public health efforts.
The nutrients in fruits and vegetables, in any form, conventional or organic, support health in a multitude of ways. It doesn’t take a nutrition degree to know that these foods are good for us. Why encourage any type of messaging that dissuades us from eating certain types of produce when our health is threatened by a global pandemic?
Peer reviewed research shows fear-based messaging regarding pesticide residues resulted in low income consumers stating they were less like to purchase any produce — organic or conventional. Sensationalized headlines and messaging taken out of context is confusing at best, harmful at worst.
And this is just the beginning of the problems with the Dirty Dozen List.
What’s wrong with the Dirty Dozen?
I've linked to this before, but I'll link to it again: Kevin Folta wrote a nice piece about A Half Dozen Reasons to Reject the "Dirty Dozen". But he isn't the only one advocating for skepticism.
- A peer reviewed study found that EWG’s suggested substitution of organic forms of produce for conventional forms did not result in any decrease in risk because residues on conventional produce are so minute, if present at all.
- An adult woman could eat 18,615 servings of kale in a day and a child could eat 7,746 in a day and still not have any health effects from residues, according to an analysis by toxicologists with the University of California’s Personal Chemical Exposure Program.
That's a lot of kale...
I chose kale as an example because it was one of the updates in the 2019 list, having not appeared previously. But you can see for yourself how much of any particular fruit or vegetable you’d need to consume to be at risk using this tool from Safe Fruits and Veggies.
Pesticide Residue Calculator - Safe Fruits and Veggies
Scientists and health experts overwhelmingly agree that the mere presence of pesticide residues on food does not mean…
I tried it out with a few more of my favorites:
- Blueberries: 13,204 servings
- Spinach: 733 servings
- Grapes: 671 servings
- Cherries: 1,189
Keep in mind, this is not in a year, a month, a week. This is per day. I have some serious doubts about my ability to eat that many servings of some of these things in a lifetime, if I’m being honest.
What kind of fruits and veggies do you buy?
Being a millennial raised on technology and social distanced, I did what anyone in my situation would do: took to social media. I posed the question above to my followers and readers.
There was something fascinating in this highly scientific poll of mine (sarcasm...IG Stories do not count as high quality research). Not a single person said they base their shopping choices on a label. When I asked the question "What kind of fruits and veggies do you buy?" I got all kinds of responses.
And I won’t lie, it kind of made me hungry to read through them all because I'm counting down the days until the farmers market opens again and we can start a slow return to “normal”. I cannot wait.
But anyways. Back to this.
People listed out their favorite fruits and veggies, some people mentioned local so they could support farmers in their community, some people said they buy fresh veggies in season and frozen or canned in the winter.
But not one person said they shop according to a label like "organic". And I’ll admit I was pleasantly surprised. Keep in mind, it could have been totally skewed because my audience that follows me on Instagram likely knows my feelings about crazy food labels by now, but it was still really encouraging.
It also supports the things I've read, heard, listened to, and talked about as far as food choices and shopping habits go. And that is, that no matter what, the top three things that determine a food purchase boil down to the same three things:
- Taste (duh)
- Cost (another obvious one)
- Availability or accessibility (also obvious because, I mean, how else are you going to be able to buy it?)
After that, the other factors vary depending on the source or who you're talking to. It might round out the top five to include nutrition, freshness, labels, brand, etc. But if we're being practical about it, the taste, cost, and availability of a food matter the most.
And I can't resist. Here's a personal favorite response:
I buy the ones that don't go bad after two days!
I don't know about you, but I don't have time to shop for fresh produce every day. And now, it’s looking like that’s not an option even if I had the desire. My city is under a 30-day lockdown and while grocery shopping is considered an essential task, we’re encouraged to minimize trips to public places as much as we possibly can.
If something looks like it's about 6 hours from disintegrating on the kitchen counter, I'm going to pass no matter how it was grown. So add that to the list if you're conscious about food waste, too.
While we’re spacing out grocery runs, shelf-stable and non-perishable foods are critical. I know I can thaw a bag of sliced carrots or green beans to add to a stir fry, and the canned tomatoes in my pantry will make a great low-cost pasta sauce. Frozen berries in a smoothie might be my only option for fruit other than canned peaches or pears.
In this time of unknowns and insecurity, why would I care if these things are organic?
Do I need to pay more for organic fruits and veggies?
Alright you guys. Here's the thing.
It gets a little more complicated that just saying, "This is right" or "This is wrong". There's nothing inherently wrong with eating a certain way and I'm certainly not here to tell you how to eat. But I do want to remind you that it's OK to stick to what you know works for you, and if you're budget conscious, I don't want anyone to feel badly about not being able to afford food that's more expensive.
I’m pro-choice when it comes to food choices and this isn’t about finger-wagging at those who choose to eat differently than I do. But I was also curious about how cost played a role in what we buy.
Organic produce isn't always more expensive, but often it does carry a higher price tag. Here's what a few of you guys had to say:
I think organic fruits and veggies are way more expensive - I am totally fine with regular fruits and veggies!
It's too expensive to eat all organic. If it's the same price or lower I have no problem with it but it adds up really fast.
Not against organic, but I feel like sometimes it spoils faster and I don't like wasting food.
And there's also the privilege aspect:
I felt a lot of shame when I was poor if I didn't buy organic. But now I don't care and I think people should eat what they can afford.
What's "worse"? Eating fewer fruits and veggies (or going without) because organic is out of the budget?
Or purchasing a more affordable option even if it isn't organic?
As you might imagine, this is a pretty easy choice for me. But just because that's my choice doesn't mean it has to be yours.
Regardless, we know the EWG’s list may be negatively impacting produce consumption, according to peer reviewed studies. Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research found that EWG’s “dirty dozen” list messaging resulted in low income shoppers reporting that they would be less likely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organic or conventional.
Just keep in mind that for most of us, eating too many fruits and veggies isn't the issue. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only one in 10 Americans eat enough fruits and veggies each day.
If nutrition and sustenence is the goal, it doesn't matter if it comes from organic or conventional produce.
Nutrition isn't the only thing that matters
Stay with me here: with intuitive eating, it's not about eating "enough" of the "right" foods.
Yes, we all know and understand that fruits and veggies are nutritious and provide a lot of benefits. No one is denying that. Using a non-diet approach isn't fixated on that aspect though; it's more about helping you learn to feel confident and empowered. Eventually, you can trust your food choices and your body again and eat without fear or anxiety.
If you feel like you've been following along with the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen without second guessing it, I encourage you to investigate a little more. Especially if you feel like the additional cost of organic may not be worth it.
And if you feel like some of your food choices are based on feeling fearful or stressed about avoiding certain things, let's talk! Dieting and orthorexic tendencies are so common in our diet- and health-obsessed culture, they almost get cast as being totally normal.
Spoiler alert: they are not, and as I said before, food choices should not be based in fear.
So do you really need to eat organic fruits and veggies?
TL;DR: No. You don't have to do anything when it comes to how you eat.
That's sort of the beauty of personal choice. At the end of the day, you do you. If you're making a food choice that you feel good about (without feeling superior to others or better than someone who makes a different choice) that's great.
If it fits your budget, lets you cook and eat how you prefer, and can be easily found most of the time, it's probably a sustainable choice in that it's a healthful habit you can maintain indefinitely.
If you're mostly eating foods you enjoy and find satisfying and aren't afraid of, you won't be swayed when a new or different list of "good" foods is released every year.
So if that means you opt for organic fruits and veggies, cool. But don't feel like you have to purchase organic simply because of the Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen list or the label that appears on a food.
And in closing: Just wash the produce. And WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS.
(According to the FDA, washing produce under running tap water can reduce and often eliminate pesticide residues, if they are present at all)