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Any food we consume these days, unless it’s organic, was almost certainly exposed to pesticides at some point. The use of pesticides on food crops has largely increased over the last century in America. In a Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, pesticides were detected in 96 percent of blood and urine samples of more than 5,000 Americans age 6 and older. Pesticide prevalence in the US is higher than it’s ever been and the toxicity of pesticides is unquestionable. These harmful chemicals have been linked to various health problems, such as skin, eye and lung irritation, brain and nervous system toxicity and hormone disruption.

Buying organic is the healthiest choice but with limited supply and high prices, purchasing all organic produce may not be possible for the average shopper. Luckily we now have some perspective on the world’s most polluted produce with the annual “dirty dozen” list.

For the past 7 years the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental health organization, has helped consumers who are concerned about pesticides on produce. Each year EWG scientists test conventionally grown (not organic) produce samples for pesticide residues and use data collected from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. Analysts assemble a ranking of the fruits and vegetables that contain the greatest amount of pesticide residues called the “dirty dozen.” This inventory helps consumers decide which organic fruits and vegetables to splurge on when they’re shopping for produce. Similarly, a separate list is released of the non-organic produce with the least accumulation of potentially harmful pesticide residues called the “clean fifteen.”

Dirty Dozen 2011 (buy organic when possible)

  1. Apples
  2. Celery
  3. Strawberries
  4. Peaches
  5. Spinach
  6. Nectarines (imported)
  7. Grapes (imported)
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Potatoes
  10. Blueberries (domestic)
  11. Lettuce
  12. Kale/collard greens

Clean Fifteen 2011 (lowest amounts of pesticides)

  1. Onions
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapples
  4. Avocado
  5. Asparagus
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Mangoes
  8. Eggplants
  9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
  10. Kiwi
  11. Cabbage
  12. Watermelon
  13. Sweet potatoes
  14. Grapefruit
  15. Mushrooms 

You may be thinking that you’re in the clear because you wash all of your fruits and veggies. While it’s true that washing non-organic fruits and vegetables helps remove some chemical residues, washing produce only goes so far. Pesticides are also absorbed through the roots of plants so washing won’t remove all risk of pesticide exposure. Plus, before the EWG tests any fruit or vegetable for pesticides, samples are washed and peeled. Produce is evaluated just as it would be consumed, making the “dirty dozen” and “clean fifteen” lists even more accurate.

But don’t let the dirty dozen scare you. The health benefits of eating fruits and vegetables far outweigh any pesticide exposure risk. It’s always best to choose organic when possible to limit your exposure to harmful levels of pesticides, but now you can choose your produce wisely and not break the bank in the process.

Since we’re all exposed to harmful chemicals like pesticides, remember to do a total-body cleanse 2-4 times each year to help keep your detoxification processes in tip-top shape.

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