Navigating the aisles of your local grocery store can feel like walking through a minefield of choices, especially in light of the Environmental Working Group’s recently released 2024 Dirty Dozen foods list. This list highlights fruits and vegetables claimed to have the highest pesticide residues, reigniting the debate surrounding organic and conventional produce. With a myriad of opinions, myths, and facts floating around, making informed decisions about what produce to put in your shopping cart can be overwhelming. Is organic produce truly safer and more nutritious than conventional? Is it worth buying organic for the Dirty Dozen? Let’s delve deeper into the organic vs. conventional produce debate and dig up on the dirt on the Dirty Dozen foods list.

dirty dozen foods list organic vs conventional produce

The Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Dirty Dozen foods list, which supposedly identifies fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, has sparked significant controversy for yet another year, as critics argue that the methodology used to rank these items often lacks transparency and scientific rigor, potentially causing unnecessary fear among consumers about conventionally grown produce. Moreover, understanding what “organic” really means can add layers of complexity to our shopping decisions, as we navigate through the mixed signals about the safety and nutritional value of organic versus conventional options.

What does organic mean?

Before we delve into the myths and facts, let’s clarify what “organic” really means when it comes to produce. A fruit or vegetable labeled organic has been produced according to specific regulatory criteria enforced by the USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP).

To be labeled as organic, fruits and vegetables must be cultivated without:

  • Synthetic fertilizers
  • Sewage sludge
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • Conventional pesticides

The effectiveness and impact of these standards on the quality of organic produce and consumer health remain points of debate. Indeed, the attention given to the Dirty Dozen foods list often fuels misconceptions that organic produce is inherently safer and healthier, a notion that merits closer examination.

dirty dozen foods list organic vs conventional produce

Organic vs conventional produce: debunking common myths

Organic produce has gained popularity due to perceptions of it being more natural, healthier, and pesticide-free, among other reasons. These beliefs are often reinforced by lists like the Dirty Dozen foods list, which spotlights fruits and vegetables claimed to have the highest levels of pesticide residues. However, these assumptions often lack robust scientific backing, leading to widespread myths about organic produce. Let’s address these misconceptions once and for all.

Is organic healthier than conventional?

When it comes to fruits and veggies, is organic healthier than conventional? From a nutritional perspective, research generally shows little to no difference in the concentration of macronutrients, vitamins, and minerals between organic and conventional produce. Certain organic crops have been shown to have slightly higher antioxidant content; however, these differences are minimal and unlikely to significantly impact overall nutrition.

Factors like soil composition and climate conditions can make it challenging to definitively assess and compare the nutritional quality of organic versus conventional produce, as these factors can influence nutrient levels. Regardless, there is no evidence to indicate that conventional produce isn’t as nutritious as organic.

Does organic produce use pesticides?

Maybe it’s not about what organic fruits and veggies do have in them; it’s what they don’t. After all, organic means pesticide-free, right? A common misconception—and one that understandably leaves many consumers afraid to buy conventional produce. Although organic crops must be grown without conventional pesticides, that doesn’t mean “natural” ones can’t be used. Unfortunately, the word natural is ambiguous and misleading and doesn’t necessarily mean safe or nontoxic. Virtually all pesticides, synthetic or natural, can be dangerous at the right dose. Yep, like with everything—even water—the dose makes the poison.

Rest assured, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) meticulously regulates pesticide use in agriculture, ensuring the safety of both organic and conventional produce by keeping pesticide levels well within safe limits. This is in strict compliance with the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which mandates that all pesticides used on US food must meet the Act’s stringent safety criteria.

Before the EPA reviews them, pesticidal compounds are subject to extensive safety evaluations and testing by manufacturers. The EPA’s risk assessments then determine safe consumption levels for both adults and children, aiming to prevent any adverse health effects. Additionally, the EPA establishes specific tolerances on a crop-by-crop basis to guarantee that total exposure stays well below safe thresholds. Put simply, the EPA takes into account that different crops absorb and retain pesticides in different ways, and that people eat various types of crops in different amounts. This means they set safety limits specifically for each type of crop to make sure that everyone, including both adults and children, is exposed to pesticide levels that are well within safe limits.

To reinforce these standards, the FDA and USDA actively monitor the presence of pesticides in the US food supply, ensuring adherence to EPA-established tolerances. Specifically, the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) plays a critical role in this effort by testing a wide range of agricultural products annually for pesticide residues. While the EWG uses this data to compile their yearly Dirty Dozen foods list, their interpretation often aligns with their own agenda, which often leads to skewed perceptions of pesticide risks in conventional produce.

Are organic foods safer to consume than non-organic?

Observational studies have linked organic food consumption with various health benefits, such as lower risks of certain cancers, obesity, and autoimmune conditions. However, it’s very important to note that these studies often fall short of establishing causation (a direct cause-and-effect relationship), primarily due to the challenge of accounting for confounding factors—outside variables whose presence affects the variables being studied so that the results do not reflect the actual relationship.

In this context, people who choose organic tend to be wealthier, consume a more nutritious diet, and lead healthier lifestyles overall, making it difficult to attribute any associated benefits to organic food consumption alone. Intervention studies, which could help clarify these associations, are few and generally focus on indirect measures like pesticide exposure rather than direct health outcomes.

When it comes to pesticide exposure, organic crops have been shown to have lower levels of pesticide residues than conventional ones. Studies have also shown that shifting to organic can reduce overall pesticide residues found in urine. However, many of these studies didn’t test for organic pesticides, likely underestimating urine residue levels and overall pesticide exposure from organic produce.

A recent study that did test for organic pesticides, like copper-based compounds and pyrethrum, assessed urinary pesticide residue excretion (UPRE) between organic and conventional food consumers within a Mediterranean diet context. The study identified statistically significant differences in UPRE, showing lower levels in organic food consumption, yet there’s no definitive evidence that these differences in exposure translate to clinically meaningful health benefits. In other words, while there was a measurable difference in pesticide levels favoring organic foods, this minor variance might not matter for your health, given that the residue levels in both organic and conventional produce are already quite low.

And while there are concerns about the potential cancer risks posed by pesticides used for conventionally grown foods, this is mainly based on studies of agricultural workers with exposure levels and frequency not typical of average consumers. Even though high doses of pesticides can be harmful—remember, the dose makes the poison—years of government sampling data have verified that the residues found in both organic and conventional food show virtually no impact on health, affirming the safety of all produce for consumers.

Is organic non-gmo?

The use of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) is prohibited in organic farming; therefore, yes, all organic crops are non-GMO. But don’t sound the alarm bells on conventional for this reason just yet. According to major health groups, including the World Health Organization and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, genetically modified foods are safe, and there is no data to indicate that consumption of them poses a risk to human health.

Just as the fear of organic should not prevent you from getting more healthful plant-based foods in the diet, so too shouldn’t the fear of GMOs. And if you are genuinely concerned about GMOs, keep in mind that there are only ten crops approved by the USDA and grown in the United States that can be genetically modified: apples, potatoes, field corn, sweet corn, canola, alfalfa, soybeans, rainbow papaya, cotton, sugar beet, and summer squash. So, foods like quinoa, kale, tomatoes, grapes, popcorn (which doesn’t come from field or sweet corn), etc., are always “non-GMO.”

EWG 2024 dirty dozen foods list

The dirt on the Dirty Dozen

Circling back to the Dirty Dozen foods list—if organic isn’t necessarily safer or more nutritious, should you still consider buying organic when it comes to the fruits and vegetables listed in the Dirty Dozen?

What is the Dirty Dozen foods list?

As a reminder, this list, released annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), names twelve fruits and vegetables that reportedly contain the highest levels of pesticide residues when grown conventionally. While it claims to guide consumers toward making safer choices, its approach and implications require scrutiny, especially in light of what we now know about organic vs conventional produce.

The list is updated each year using data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program (PDP)—a national pesticide residue monitoring program that tests a wide variety of agricultural commodities in the US annually to ensure that pesticide residues on these foods do not exceed the levels established by the EPA to protect public health. Each year, the USDA selects a subset of fruits and vegetables to test, rather than testing all crops annually.

While the USDA PDP provides valuable data on pesticide residues, the interpretation—or rather, manipulation—of this data by the EWG has been consistently criticized by scientists for good reason.

How is the Dirty Dozen foods list determined?

Here is how the EWG determines which (lucky) fruits and vegetables make their way onto each year’s Dirty Dozen foods list, straight from their website:

“To compare foods, EWG considers six measures of pesticide contamination:

  • Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides.
  • Percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides.
  • Average number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • Average amount of pesticides found, in parts per million.
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • Total number of pesticides found on the crop.

For each food, we calculated a total score by summing the normalized rank of each metric. All categories are weighted equally, since they convey different but equally relevant information about pesticide levels on produce.”

And another relevant snippet from their website: “We do not factor in the pesticide levels deemed acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

There are some big problems in how the EWG manipulates the USDA’s data to fit their agenda. Essentially, they count all pesticide residue detections equally and don’t consider what the individual pesticides detected are, at what level each individual pesticide was detected, and how those levels compare to the safety levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This last point is crucial—how can you accurately determine risk without making these comparisons? Remember, the dose makes the poison!

Let’s imagine you’re looking at two fruits at the grocery store: Produce Item A and Produce Item B:

  • Produce Item A is a peach that has traces of 5 different pesticides on it. However, the residue level for each pesticide on this peach is at ~1000 times lower than the EPA’s safety thresholds for those specific pesticides. Although there’s a variety of pesticides detected, their concentrations are so tiny that the peach poses no risk to your health.
  • Produce Item B is a grape with just one pesticide residue detected. This lone pesticide is found at a level 100 times lower than the EPA’s safety threshold for that pesticide, making it also safe to eat.

The EWG might list the peach as “dirty” because it has a higher count of different pesticides, despite each being present in significantly low, harmless amounts. Meanwhile, the grape, having fewer types of pesticide residues, could be deemed “clean,” even though this distinction doesn’t necessarily reflect the actual safety of consuming either fruit, considering the EWG doesn’t consider how the amount compares to a safety level.

In essence, both the peach and the grape are completely safe for consumption as per EPA standards. The number of pesticide residues isn’t as critical as their concentration levels, which in both cases are well within the limits of safety.

Even if we consider the “average amount of pesticides found, in parts per million” from the EWG’s methodology—the measure that appears most scientifically sound for establishing risk—it remains scientifically questionable. This is due to the vastly different tolerance levels for pesticides, which, again, the EWG does not consider. For example, take two different pesticides used on peaches: Captan has an EPA tolerance level set at 15 ppm, while Carfentrazone’s tolerance level is much lower at 0.1 ppm. Lumping together these diverse pesticides into a single measure without considering their individual safety thresholds and comparing the detected amounts of each to said thresholds strips the data of meaningful context. This approach makes the measure scientifically unreliable for assessing the actual risk or safety of consuming conventionally grown peaches.

A peer-reviewed study from the Journal of Toxicology concurs, concluding that the EWG’s Dirty Dozen foods list lacks grounding in established scientific procedures. Additionally, the suggestion that switching to organic alternatives for these Dirty Dozen foods reduces health risks is unfounded. The reason is straightforward: the levels of pesticide residues found on conventional produce are, in fact, extremely low, rendering the perceived risk reduction through purchasing organic produce negligible.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, the Dirty Dozen foods list fails to acknowledge that, year after year, the USDA PDP finds that over 99 percent of conventional produce tested had pesticide residues well below the EPA safety levels. And 28 percent of samples tested had no detectable pesticide residues whatsoever.

Interestingly, the USDA’s organic certification process permits small amounts of non-organic approved chemical residues on organic produce, as long as these residues are below 5% of the EPA’s established tolerance levels. These minor detections are considered unintentional and, thus, do not violate organic standards. Even more intriguing, an analysis of previous USDA PDP data revealed that a significant portion of pesticide residues found on conventional produce samples are so low that they would technically qualify under this ‘organic 5% rule.’

dirty dozen foods list organic vs conventional produce

Disadvantages of organic food

The focus on the organic versus conventional debate often overshadows a crucial issue: less than one in ten adults consume adequate fruits and vegetables, with misleading messages about organic foods, pesticides, and the Dirty Dozen foods list discouraging produce consumption across the board.

A study surveying low-income shoppers revealed a preference for organic produce primarily due to perceived health benefits, yet cost was a significant barrier, and fear-inducing messages about pesticides actually reduced the likelihood of purchasing any fruits and vegetables—both organic and conventional. This indicates a need for clear, positive communication about the benefits of all produce types to encourage higher consumption levels, emphasizing that both organic and conventional options are safe and beneficial, thereby supporting public health goals of increasing fruit and vegetable intake across all income levels.

close up of woman holding two peaches at grocery store

Bottom line: is it worth buying organic?

Ultimately, whether to buy organic or conventional produce is a personal choice. Remember, both types of produce are well-regulated to ensure safety, and incorporating more and a variety of fruits and vegetables—organic or conventional—into the diet is what’s most important for good health. So, please do not let the Dirty Dozen foods list dissuade you from doing so. The list is indeed dirty, not with the pesticides it purports to expose, but with its scientifically unreliable methodology that misleadingly exaggerates the risks of pesticide residues on conventional produce, scaring consumers into eating less.

You can rest assured that conventional produce—even items on the Dirty Dozen foods list—is just as nutritious and safe as organic. Eating more fruits and vegetables, organic or conventional, is always better than eating less. So, the next time you’re in the grocery store, arm yourself with knowledge, not fear. And for the love of fruits and veggies, please eat more of them!