The Dirty Truth in the Produce Aisle

The Dirty Truth in the Produce Aisle

For years, farmers have worked hard to control pests that destroy their crops. Today, crop loss from pest infestations and diseases range from 10-90% (with an average of 35-40%).1 Pesticide use has evolved greatly over the past few thousand years. The Sumerians were the first population recorded to use insecticides, utilizing Sulphur compounds to protect their crops. Pesticides used thousands of years ago include mercury and arsenical compounds, tar, smoked foliage, and folk magic.1 The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences states, “Pesticides include herbicides for destroying weeds and other unwanted vegetation, insecticides for controlling a wide variety of insects, fungicides used to prevent the growth of molds and mildew, disinfectants for preventing the spread of bacteria, and compounds used to control mice and rats.”2 Today, the most commonly used pesticide is glyphosate, found in Roundup, Rodeo, and Pondmaster.3,4 About 9.4 million tons of glyphosate have been sprayed on fields worldwide.5 Even though pesticides may be useful for yielding a larger amount of crop, it poses risks to human and environmental health.


Since agricultural chemicals can be found on food, people are often exposed to low levels of pesticides. Scientists are still trying to gain a clear understanding of negative health effects from pesticides on food and some evidences suggest that children are at a higher risk for dangerous effects.2 We are consuming pesticides every day without thinking about it. The United States Department of Agriculture tested strawberries for pesticides between 2014-2015 and found that 99 percent of samples had detectable residues. They also found that around 30 percent had 10 or more pesticide residues.6 The Environmental Working Group (EWG) also stated that some pesticides used on strawberries, “… are linked to cancer, reproductive and developmental damage, hormone disruption and neurological problems.”6 The World Health Organization has determined that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic to humans”.7 As a produce consumer, it is important to know what types of growing conditions your food was harvested from.


In an attempt to help consumers easily understand which foods contain the greatest amounts of pesticides, the EWG created the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. This guide lists the “cleanest” and “dirtiest” non-organic produce based on pesticide testing. Among the Clean Fifteen include sweet corn, avocados, pineapples, cabbage, onions, sweet peas, papayas, and asparagus.8Foods in the Dirty Dozen category include strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, and cherries.9 Buying organic produce is the best way to avoid pesticide consumption aside from planting your own garden. If you can’t afford to stock your fridge full of organic produce, do your best to buy organic produce on the Dirty Dozen list when you want a treat. The United States Department of Agriculture states “Produce can be called organic if it’s certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. In instances when a grower has to use a synthetic substance to achieve a specific purpose, the substance must first be approved according to criteria that examine its effects on human health and the environment.”10 We are always lectured to eat more fruits and vegetables, so make it count when you do!


  1. Unsworth, J. History of Pesticide Use. International Union or Pure and Applied Chemistry. Published May 8, 2010. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  2. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Reviewed August 28, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  3. Atwood D, Paisley-Jones C. Pesticides Industry Sales and Uses. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Published 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  4. Extension Toxicology Network. Published May 1994. Accessed May 20, 2018.
  5. Glyphosate: Health Concerns About the Most Widely Used Pesticide. S. Right to Know. Published March 31, 2017. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  6. Walker B, Lunder S. Pesticides +Poison Gases = Cheap, Year-Round Strawberries. Environmental Working Group. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  7. IARC Monographs Volume 112: evaluation of five organophosphate insecticides and herbicides. World Health Organization. Published March 20, 2015. Accessed March 20, 2018.
  8. Clean Fifteen. Environmental Working Group. Accessed March 20, 2015.
  9. Dirty Dozen. Environmental Working Group. Accessed March 20, 2015.
  10. Organic 101: What the USDA Organic Label Means. United States Department of Agriculture. Published March 22, 2012. Accessed March 20, 2018.
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    This information is not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your physician or other healthcare professional or any information contained on or in any product label or packaging. Do not use the information from this article for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease, or prescribing medication or other treatment. Always speak with your physician or other healthcare professional before taking any medication or nutritional, herbal or homeopathic supplement, or using any treatment for a health problem. If you have or suspect that you have a medical problem, contact your health care provider promptly. Do not disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking professional advice because of something you have read in this article.

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