Each year, the activist group known as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a document called the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, which ranks pesticide residues found on 46 popular fruits and vegetables.
This release includes a popular shortlist of the top twelve “dirty’’ and the top fifteen “clean” fruits and vegetables, AKA The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. It’s catchy. The media thinks so too, and predictably, it gets picked up by media outlets worldwide without adequate scrutiny about what the list is actually telling us.
As a solution, the EWG strongly urges consumers to purchase organic fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticide residues, which they claim pose a risk to our health.
Are pesticide residues found in the Dirty Dozen a health risk?
Unequivocally, no. And here’s why.
To assess the risk of pesticide residues on our produce, we need to know a few simple things.
- The specific type of pesticide (chemical) found
- The amount of residue found on the food
- How the amount (or dose) we consume compares to the dose we know might cause harm.
The Dirty Dozen simply looks at the overall number of residues found, and compares each fruit and vegetable to one another, essentially ranking them.
It ignores the dose completely. This is a huge omission.
As with any chemical, the dose matters. A lot. Just because a residue is present, doesn’t mean it poses a risk to our health.
With today’s advanced technology, we can now identify residues in amounts as small as parts per billion (think one drop of water in an Olympic-sized swimming pool).
How do we know current residue levels are safe?
Health Canada’s Pesticide Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) sets what are called Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs). They are the highest amount of allowable pesticide residue on a specific crop. They are established to ensure pesticides are used properly, and they are set at levels hundreds to thousands of times below the Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI), which is the amount of pesticide residue a person could consume every day without any negative health effects.
These limits are set after rigorous scientific assessment and take into account the entire population, including infants, children, and pregnant women. They are also set for all foods sold in Canada, including imported foods.
In addition, pesticide residues are monitored and tested regularly through the Canadian Food Inspection agency. The most recent assessment showed that over 99% of produce in Canada (including imported) have pesticide residues that fall far below our very conservative limits.
Pesticide residue in context
If we were to put it into context, let’s look at the EWG’s top 3 Dirty Dozen “offenders” and compare the amount of servings a child could consume daily without a health risk from pesticide residue.
Strawberries: a child could consume 181 servings (~8 strawberries per serving) or 1,448 strawberries per day
Spinach: 309 servings per day
Kale: 7,441 servings per day
Consuming the sheer volume of any one of those foods would be far more dangerous than consuming the tiny amount of pesticide residue present. Plus, washing organic and conventional produce under running water often removes or eliminates any minute residues present, as well as dust and dirt from growing the fruit or vegetable.
Find out more about your own favourite fruit or vegetable using this Pesticide Residue Calculator.
Is Organic better, though?
The EWG is not an unbiased consumer advocate group. They are an activist group funded in part by the organic food industry. The Dirty Dozen is a marketing tactic used to sway people to buy organic produce.
There is no better way to convince a parent to buy organic than by telling them what they’re buying and feeding their families is “dirty”.
The reality is, organic food is no healthier or safer than conventionally grown food. It is equally so. Organic agriculture is a method of growing food. It is not a certification that speaks to nutrition, quality or safety.
Additionally, pesticides can be used in organic agriculture (they must be naturally derived rather than synthetic) but importantly, the residue limits for organic pesticides are equally as conservative as those used in conventional agriculture.
Organic and conventionally grown produce are both nutritious and safe.
If you buy organic produce because you value the method in which it is grown, excellent! Go for it. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a country with an abundance of food, where we have an abundance of choice.
What’s the harm?
The problem is Canadians already struggle to eat enough fruit and vegetables. For Canadians on a strict grocery budget, these lists can cause considerable anxiety around shopping. In fact, there is research to support that lower income families will buy fewer fruits and vegetables overall when they hear this type of messaging.
We know there is a litany of research supporting the health benefits of consuming as many fruits and vegetables as possible. Canada’s Food Guide even lists “Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables” as its first priority statement.
The EWG’s emphasis on avoiding pesticide residue (which occur in negligible amounts) is way out of proportion to the known benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables. The message should be “Eat Fruits and Vegetables!”. Choose produce based on freshness, taste and affordability. And rest assured that the produce you eat maybe dusty from the field it was grown in but it isn’t ‘dirty’.
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