What You Need to Know About Your Produce

Originally I had a much more fun post planned for today, but then I got an e-mail in my inbox and changed my direction completely. Needless to say I’m already ahead of the game for next week’s WIAW! Usually I would be a little annoyed at the thought of writing an entirely new post, but I think this topic is much more important for you all to hear today.

So, who was it that caused this drastic change in plans?

Actually the proper question would not be who, but what, and the what would be the Environmental Working Group (otherwise known as EWG). As stated on the EWG’s website, they are “the nation’s leading environmental health research and advocacy organization.”  Their mission “is to serve as a watchdog to see that Americans get straight facts, unfiltered and unspun, so they can make healthier choices and enjoy a cleaner environment.”



At first that seems like a pretty big undertaking for an organization that many have probably never even heard of, but EWG is funded by many supporters which you most definitely are familiar with such as The Walton Family Foundation (as in the Waltons of Wal-Mart!), The David and Lucille Packard Foundation (ever heard of Hewlett-Packard, aka HP, one of the leading technology companies in the world?) and many others.



EWG concerns itself with six key issues including consumer products, energy, farming, food, water, and toxics. The issue that the e-mail I received addressed an issue that everyone should be concerned with— Food!

Every year for the past nine years now, EWG has released what it calls its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. As the title suggests, this guide ranks the pesticide contamination levels in popular produce and shares it with consumers to so that we can make healthier decisions about which fruits and vegetables are safest for us to consume.



In addition to their Shopper’s Guide (and more importantly in my opinion), is EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.

Both the Shopper’s Guide and Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen lists are based on the pesticide residue tests completed by the USDA and FDA and according to their website, this year included more than 28,000 samples on 48 fruits and vegetables to ensure the most accurate results.

Here are the links to some of the invaluable information that EWG released this year regarding to pesticides:

Apples Top EWG’s Dirty Dozen (sort of like a newspaper article describing their findings)

Executive Summary (very concise and helpful!)

Methodology (again, a very clear and easy understand description of how they obtained their information)

FAQ’s (common questions people ask about pesticides)

Full List (ranks all 48 fruits and vegetables by level of pesticides)

As I stated before though, I think one of the most helpful things that the EWG creates for consumers is their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists:


This is great to print out and store in your wallet, purse, pocket, etc. when you go to the grocery store. You can click here to get your own free downloadable copy so that you always have the list with you. I also printed out a list and taped it to my fridge at home for easy reference when I or my parents go to make a grocery list. All you need to do is look over at the list when you write down your groceries and if a produce item is on the Clean Fifteen write C (for Conventional) and if it’s on the Dirty Dozen write O (for Organic). That way you won’t forget while you are shopping. So easy!

It’s important to note though, that these lists don’t guarantee that if you buy something conventionally grown on the Clean Fifteen it’s pesticide-free or on the Dirty Dozen it’s pesticide-laden. These lists are based on test data and can only predict the likelihood of pesticides on the produce.

Also, some of you particularly observant readers may have noticed that the number of produce on the Dirty Dozen don’t add up to 12 but 14! As noted by the asterisks (*) beside the bottom produce of collards/kale and summer squash/zucchini, these vegetables did not make it into the official Dirty Dozen list, but when tested they showed evidence of organophosphate pesticides which is why they were added as “Pluses” to the list. Organophosphate pesticides are “potent neurotoxins that can affect children’s IQ and brain development, even at low doses.” I think it’s safe to speak for the masses, but I’m not even bothered in the slightest that EWG broke their 12 rule and included this produce on the list.



There are many still that believe there is no benefit to consuming organic over non-organic vegetables, but as you can see, I have a very strong standpoint on the matter. With severe gastrointestinal issues, I can really tell the difference when I consume conventionally grown versus organic produce both in taste and in the way I feel overall. I still skin most of my vegetables, but that doesn’t mean I’m safe. While it’s true that pesticides are more concentrated in the skin of produce, we now know that pesticides can actually be found inside produce as well, making none of our previous methods of preparation entirely full-proof.

My questions for you today are: Do you follow the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists when you shop? Do you try to buy organic produce whenever possible? 

If you haven’t already, I urge you to click on my link above, print out your own copy of the EWG’s Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen lists, and go put it in your wallet so that you can reference it whenever needed. Even further, why don’t you print out a few additional copies and give them to your friends and family so we can all be a little safer in what we put in our bodies!


A huge thanks to Jenn for allowing me to participate in WIAW week in and week out (even though I always break the rules 😉 )

Shared at Fat Tuesday as well.


Edited to add: I received a comment that you can read below from a website that claims that organic and conventional produce are equally safe and that the EWG is trying to make people fearful of eating fruits and vegetables.

Addressing the first part, you can read about the USDA’s National Organic Program, as well as their Organic 101 Blog which answers a lot of questions that consumers might have about organic regulations. The most interesting for me was that “the USDA organic seal verifies that irradiation, sewage sludge, synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, and genetically modified organisms were not used” (Source). Also, while studies show that organic produce may not necessarily be higher in vitamins or minerals compared to their conventional counterparts, organic produce is less likely to contain dangerous toxins that can impact your health (Source).

For the second part of their comment, I would like to repeat a quote that I shared in my response to them below from EWG’s FAQ page: “The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. And with EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and healthy diets (Source). Also on the FAQ page the organization was asked if we should stop eating produce that is on the dirty dozen list. They responded that that is not their intent in creating the list as chemical-laden produce is still healthier than the much more popular snacks of candy and junk food (Source).

Finally, the EWG provides many studies on their FAQ page and website that support their claims. I am not trying to convince people to only buy organic; I am just providing the most convincing evidence that I have seen so far in the debate of organic vs. conventional. If you have any objections, questions, concerns, opinions, research, etc. that you would like to share, feel free to leave links in the comments below! Thanks for making this a great discussion!

55 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Your Produce

    • I used to be the same way when eating produce. I never washed anything! There are quite a few memories that I have of my mom chiding me too 😀 Apple, strawberries, peppers, grapes…. Gosh. I don’t think I ever washed any of them! The first time I saw this list I was pretty scared too, but scared for the best I guess!

    • I feel the same way about GMOs too. The only thing that I buy non-organic is winter squash because none of the stores around me in about a 60 mile radius carry organic winter squash. Whenever I go to Whole Foods though and they have some I make sure to stalk up! 🙂 Corn is so out of whack. I’m almost thankful (okay… not really 😛 ) that I’m allergic to it, so that I’m never tempted to eat it!

      That is so great that you buy all organic!

  1. I try to follow clean v. dirty rule but it really depends on the week/what’s on sale/how expensive the organic is. That’s one of the reasons I like Trader Joes…their organic stuff is a lot cheaper than others

    • I think following the clean/dirty list is great for those who don’t want to/can’t afford to go all out organic. I know I always try to buy all organic for myself whenever possible, but for my parents who don’t have the same GI problems that I do, they tend to follow the list whenever the conventional option is a better deal. I’m a little surprised to hear your comment about Trader Joe’s because at least the two that I’ve been to had like NO organic produce at all. Actually a little maddening… However, maybe it was just because it was in the middle of winter and most of the produce was out of season? Or maybe it was just a bad day 😀 Certainly still have a love for TJs though!

  2. This was extremely interesting and very informative! I try to buy organic but sometimes the options aren’t as good, I do then make sure to wash them.

    • That (along with price) is one of the biggest downsides that I’ve found with buying organic. It seems that without all of the chemicals on the outside they go bad more quickly. Then as result grocery stores are less likely to carry a nice variety, and when they do, they aren’t always the “freshest.”

  3. When I saw what this post was about, I was simultaneously looking forward to reading it and dreading the information. This is such a difficult topic for me, as I want to be nice to my body and the environment, but at the same time, I’m on a college student’s budget, which typically means that the “good” foods are not always a possibility. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, I’m so glad you are bringing this to peoples’ attention.
    And I agree, digestive issues can really clue a person in on just how bad pesticides (and that sort of thing) can be. I think the two of us are particularly keen on reactions, but I also think that if more people stopped and listened to their bodies, the food world would become a better place.
    Thanks for sharing this interesting thought!

    • I know exactly what you mean. Sometimes I just don’t want to know because it’s yet another thing to be weary of. I completely understand how you feel as a college student on a budget, and that’s what I love so much about these lists. They help you to pick the options possible.

      I know that I’m not perfect with buying organic, but I try to whenever possible and definitely keep in mind these lists. Like you said– we need to listen to our bodies!

  4. I wish there was a similar list for Europe. But maybe there is? I need to research that.
    I’d love to buy more organic food, but often it’s not available or very expensive. But I do wash everything I eat, even grains and legumes. You never know!

    • Maybe! I found this article written by the BBC concerning the myths and truths about organic produce in Europe: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/business/8415576.stm It may be outdated, but it seems like there isn’t as strict of standards in Europe as the U.S. for what organic really means. If you ever see produce imported from the U.S. though, this list will surely help!

      And I used to not be as careful with washing my food, but I now realize that was just plain stupid of me. Even though washed produce is still not as safe as chemical-free produce, it is definitely the healthiest option for many! 🙂 Let me know if you ever do come across a dirty dozen/clean fifteen-type list for Europe and I’ll be sure to add it to this post in case any other readers are in a similar case as you!

  5. Really interesting post; we had a debate about this in uni the other day about organic vs non organic food and why people purchase it and what benefits they think they get. Was really interesting.
    To be honest I don’t really buy much organic produce; I think we live in a world now where everything is tampered with some what and that the pesticide amount, although there in regular produce, is small enough that even if it were to be toxic it would have to be consumed in such vast quantities to effect me personally. That’s not to say I have anything against people buying organic, just its not really something thats majorly important to me.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Natalie. That’s awesome that you had a conversation about this in one of your college classes. I think one of the biggest myths right now is that organic produce is higher in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (and while this hasn’t been disprove the idea entirely, there still isn’t enough evidence to support it).

      You’re from the UK, right? Sue just made a comment above that I hadn’t really thought about before, but I think the standards for organic are vastly different in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S. organic produce means no GMO as well as a lot of other restrictions on what chemicals can be used in farming practices.

      I totally respect your viewpoint. There have been some studies that show organic is healthier, but again, nothing is for sure. I just prefer to pay a little more if it means I might be safer 🙂

  6. Thank you for writing this post! I would like to consider myself as pretty informed when it comes to this kind of stuff but a lot of this information I had never heard before! I need to print off the clean/dirty list so that I can get better about following it 🙂

    • Your welcome Di! I would love to hear your viewpoint as someone who works at Whole Foods. I know that Whole Foods is not entirely organic and sells a lot of conventional produce. Do you ever have customers ask questions or comment on it? Or were you trained on what organic means for you job? You don’t have to answer, just curious! 🙂

  7. I love this post, and you know I whole heartedly support organic versus pesticide laden produce. I think it has a huge health impact long term. I actually pinned the dirty dozen and clean fifteen (eh, who’s counting?!) list so I can access it on my phone whenever I’m at the store. I already knew and totally agree with pretty much everything you said, although I didn’t realize where the EWG’s funding comes from so that was particularly interesting for me. I really appreciate you promulgating this info as well. It’s funny when I first joined the HLB community, I thought it was going to be more stuff like this (the real meat and potatoes if you will) and instead quickly discovered it’s a lot of yogurt and avocados (not that there’s anything wrong with yogurt or avocado), but we’re missing the elephant in the room. Not you though, and I love that.

    • Glad you liked the post Meghan and I’m happy to hear that you agree on the whole issue of organic vs. conventional. I’m not sure it entirely matters where the EWG gets their funding from (as long as it isn’t something scary or black-market-sounding 🙂 ), I just found it super awesome that the foundations from some of the most influential business founders in our country support the cause.

      I am with you 100% on your initial expectations of the HLB community. I too thought that I would be reading more posts regarding things like this, and less recipes and Pinterest-stuff (although I do love a good recipe or angry cat meme!). I’m hoping to find some more topics like this to write on, but finding support for the claims is the hard part. This one kind of just fell into my lap (literally if you consider the fact that I was on my laptop when I got the e-mail. haha).

  8. Thank you so much for sharing this post. It was very informative, and very beneficial. What would we do without you??!! 🙂

  9. Very good info.
    I do have the clean 15/dirty dozen list installed on my phone so i always have it with me when i shop. I try to follow it but I find that the hardest products to get organise are the ones on the dirty dozen list!!!! Why is that I wonder!!!!! Crazy – it drive me insane!!!!!

    • I need to install on of the apps on my phone too. Great idea. Right now I just have it saved in my image gallery so I have to scroll through a lot to get there. Lol. And I share your frustration. When I first showed the list to my parents they were a little angry because the dirty dozen basically makes up 90% of the produce that they buy.

  10. Thanks so much for sharing this. I consume a lot of the produce listed on the dirty dozen list. :/ It sounds like it may be time for me to invest some more in my health and well-being, especially to protect myself and my loved ones against organophosphate pesticides. That’s awful-sounding stuff.

    • Before this I had never heard of the organophosphate pesticides. Apparently they are being phased out but still appear on the skins of a lot of produce (like zucchini and kale). The side effects that they have found associated with them is definitely scary!

    • Graphics are a sure fire way to make a post more interesting 🙂 Glad you liked it Sarah! Other than peas I don’t really eat much from the clean fifteen list 😦 So I feel your pain. You can find some coupons sometimes for organic produce online from certain companies though. Maybe that could help?

    • It makes me smile so much reading everyone’s comments! I’m so happy that you found this informative and helpful Brittany. We are definitely all still learning and it’s so nice to be able to learn together, isn’t it? 🙂

    • It’s frightening to think about that just a few short months ago I was eating multiple apples a day along with several cups of grapes, cucumbers, and zucchini. I am positive that none of the produce from my dining hall was organic!

      Maybe you can just start off small with a few of the major things that you eat on the dirty dozen (apples for sure since they are #1 on the list). This would be a great time to start looking for sales on organic produce and either freezing them or storing some stuff in cool areas (I think apples last longer when stored in cool areas, right? 😉 )

  11. Both organic and conventional produce is safe. Don’t fall prey to fear tactics by a fundraising organization (they use a $6 million budget to try to make people fear fruits and vegetables!) We ask you to learn the Facts here: (removed for spam concern).

    • Thank you for your concern for both myself and my blog readers. Your website is very interesting and I will definitely look at more of your pages. However, so far I have found your videos to be less than persuasive and do not counteract the strong evidence that conventionally grown produce are higher in pesticide residue than organically grown. In addition, it appears that the majority of studies coming out now show that pesticides on produce are in fact harmful and not as safe as we once thought.

      For your statement that the EWG is trying to make people fear fruits and vegetables, I would have to disagree and call you out on just trying to achieve shock value. A direct quote from the EWG site states: The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure. “Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables. And with EWG’s Shopper’s Guide™, consumers don’t have to choose between pesticides and healthy diets.” That does not sound like an organization that is trying to prevent people from eating produce.

      Whatever their intentions are, I am thankful for the list that they have created (based on USDA and FDA data I might add) because it allows those who can afford to choose organic produce at least occasionally to be safer and healthier individuals.

      I am choosing to leave this comment up because I do not want readers or your organization for that matter to think that I am feeding them lies. I am however going to remove your hyperlink in the comment section as it is not clear where it goes to and I am uncomfortable with leaving “http:bit.ly” links up on my blog that may lead to spam. For those that are interested in what they have to say, you can click on their name to be taken to their website. Thank you.

  12. This is a really interesting post. Might help to explain why my family gets so mad when I dont wash my fruits and veggies before I eat them. I wish I could eat all organic foods but as most of the year thats not in my budget it will be good to remember the ‘clean’ and dirty foods and where to prioritize.

    I love when the farmers markets are open and fresh, local, organic vegetables are so inexpensive!

    • This explains a lot about my childhood as well. Eating apples without washing them… Ugh. No wonder my family got mad at me too 😀

      Yes, no need to buy all organic if it’s just not feasible in your budget. Prioritizing sounds like a great idea.

      I’m excited for the farmers markets are open too! I’ve only been to a few in my life but this summer I’m hoping to go quite a bit.

  13. I always buy organic when I can…but what to do when you’re somewhere like an airport, and the only healthy snack is a random apple at the cash register? I guess from what you said earlier, that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is the most important task of all. All very interesting to think about–thanks for the lists.

  14. Pingback: A Bit of Randomness (Stomach Update + An Award!) | Eating 4 Balance

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