Eat Your Fruit and Veg, Don't Avoid the "Dirty Dozen"

October 13, 2011   43 Comments

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a list every year to help guide shoppers on which produce to buy. Their "Dirty Dozen" is a list of produce that contains pesticide residues.

Don't Avoid The "Dirty Dozen"

The EWG is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to using the power of information to protect human health and the environment. Their funding sources include corporations (3% of their total funding as reported on their website).

This year, a scientist at UC Davis, Carl Winter, Ph.D., published a paper which says that the EWG's Dirty Dozen list is not scientifically sound. His study was not funded by the food or pesticide industry and he has NEVER taken an industry dollar in his career.

The EWG's "Dirty Dozen" study was done by the EWG and has not been published in a scientific journal. Why does that matter? Well, it makes it impossible to analyze their methods for attaining their results.

You have to have faith that EWG did their analysis correctly, while a scientific paper has all the methods and data analysis PUBLISHED where you can see it.

Dr. Carl Winter was kind enough to answer questions about his research:

Snack Girl: What is the process for publishing in the Journal of Toxicology?

Dr. Winter: I believe that two independent experts were contacted by the editor of the Journal of Toxicology to provide their reviews.

The reviewers assessed the accuracy, methods, and conclusions of the paper and provided recommendations for further improvement of the paper.

A revised manuscript was then submitted to the editor of the journal that incorporated many of the reviewers' suggestions, and the editor made the final decision to publish the manuscript with the revisions.

Snack Girl: Did you use a different data set from the EWG for your work? Why do you think your analysis of the data is more accurate?

Dr. Winter: I used data from the same program as EWG - the USDA's Pesticide Data Program.

While it was impossible to tell from the EWG's methodology how far back they went with the USDA's data, I used data from the most recent year of USDA sampling for each of the commodities.

The EWG primarily focused its efforts on looking at the presence of pesticide residues; my analysis was much more robust as it looked at the amounts of pesticides detected (not just presence or absence) as well as the toxicity of the specific pesticides and consumer consumption patterns for all of the fruits and vegetables.

Snack Girl: What about the EWG's methodology lacks scientific credibility? How did they get it wrong?

Dr. Winter: The three major components of a valid food chemical risk assessment are:
1) the amounts of residues detected
2) the amounts of foods consumed
3) the toxicity of the chemical in question.

With the tiny exception of one of the six criteria they evaluated (average amount of residue detected, which was not specific to individual pesticides), the EWG neglected to include any of these.

Basically, the recommendations that consumers avoid conventional forms of the "Dirty Dozen" commodities were made solely upon the basis of the presence of pesticide residues in the foods, which paints an extremely incomplete picture of the potential risks from pesticides in the foods.

Snack Girl: Your results found that the "Dirty Dozen" pose a negligible risk to consumers, do you think that pesticides residues are ever harmful?

Dr. Winter: There have been a handful of cases where blatant misuse of pesticides has resulted in consumer illnesses from pesticides in foods, particularly in other countries. Such cases are extremely rare, and the results of hundreds of thousands of regulatory monitoring samples taken by the USDA, FDA, and state governments consistently show that levels found are not of health concern.

Snack Girl: You state that eating organic forms of the "dirty dozen" does not result in reduction of consumer risks. Is this because there wasn't a big risk with conventional produce in the first place?

Dr. Winter: Precisely. In general, our exposures to individual pesticides in foods are at least 10,000 times lower than levels that don't even produce any signs of toxicity in laboratory animals when the animals are given the chemicals on a daily basis throughout their lifetimes.

While one can reduce his/her exposure even more by selecting organic foods, this reduction doesn't result in any meaningful reduction in consumer risks since the risks were so low to begin with.

Thanks, Dr. Winter for your responses.

I contacted the EWG for a response to Dr. Winter's paper and Alex Formuzis, VP of Media Relations send me this reply:

The Shopper's Guide is an easy way for consumers to see the pesticide residues and overall amounts on the most popular fruits and vegetables.

Each year, EWG researchers analyze the USDA's annual pesticide residue tests in order to compile the most recent Guide. It is not published in a peer-reviewed journal. However, EWG and its research department stand 110 percent behind the methodology.

ummmm. really? This is your answer? How about - "We are planning to publish our research in the Journal of Toxicology next year."

If you found an amount of pesticide in twelve different types of produce that is actually TOXIC to humans - then your "Dirty Dozen" would be correct.

For example, if you find a really small amount of cocaine on a dollar bill, that doesn't mean if you sniff it you will get a buzz. (see: 90 percent of U.S. bills carry traces of cocaine)

People already have enough trouble choosing healthy food without the EWG scaring them about conventional produce.

What do you think of the EWG list and research?

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This is very interesting! Thank you for sharing! the benefits of eating fresh produce Definitely outweighs pesticide risk.

Great article! I completely, 100% agree with this. Kudos!

Good to know! Thanks for posting about this!

I agree that it's better to eat conventional produce than to not eat your fruits and veggies at all.

But make no mistake, pesticides and herbicides are not safe for human consumption. Some would say that "high fructose corn syrup in moderation is okay." But when HFCS is in EVERYTHING, it's no longer moderated and is very unhealthy. If you're eating convention produce, processed products made with fruits and veggies, etc. than you're going to have a significant amount of exposured to the -icides.

Choose organic whenever you can. Shopping farmers' markets are a great place to get cheaper produce and if you talk to your farmer you may find that they use organic practices even if they aren't certified.

So first you recommend a cereal filled with artificial colors and preservatives, and now eating pesticides? Dr. Winter is well-known to be in the pocket of the food industry. Your interview with EWG even points out they do not measure pesticides themselves, they review the measurements done by the governmental agency. Read the comments on this article submitted by several dieticians in attendance and the EWG at the research conference where Dr. Winter introduced his findings:…

@Marisa - The cereal I recommended had less 3 grams less sugar per serving than the other brand. Yes, I wish it didn't have artificial colors or preservatives - but I am more concerned with the sugar.

Secondly, I have found no evidence that Dr. Winter is in the pocket of anyone except the tax payers of California as he is an employee of UC Davis. If the EWG study is robust then they should publish it in a reputable scientific journal just like Dr. Winter.

This is how science moves forward through a back and forth discussion and review process. Right now, EWG is operating outside of that process and therefore their results are suspect.

So Snack Girl, are you trying to attract certain advertisers to your site? Pesticides are unhealthy--the use of them is polluting our water and environment. So buying produce without pesticides may enventually prompt the food growers to stop using pesticides. Some people may be more affected by consumed pesticide residue and over time, the cumulative consumption of pesticides may cause cancer or other health issues. Food with pesticide traces or no pesticides--hmmm, is there really a debate here? Recommend a produce wash, suggest people buy organic whenever possible...please promote good health. And many studies in scientific journals are slanted towards the pharmaceudicals or whoever has the most money--contrary information is not included and only the desired results are kept and noted. "Reputable" scientists go on to work for the companies their studies would affect--so better to give a favorable result and get a lucrative job later. This is a major problem with folks working for the USDA and FDA--they'll do whatever it takes to ensure a big fat salary in the private sector, including lying to the public. Follow the money.

Wow. I am really really disappointed with this post. One thing that isn't really mentioned here is the fact that when pesticides are tested as "safe," this is in a vacuum. They are not tested for safety in combination with the mountain of other chemicals and pesticides we are exposed to every single day - and in fact, some researchers believe it is actually the combination of these substances that is most dangerous. It makes sense, then, to limit our exposure to chemicals as much as possible. This is especially true when we're talking about children, who are far more sensitive to environmental toxins.

I have personally never felt "scared" by the EWG. I've been grateful to have SOME kind of guide to foods that are likely to have more of the chemicals I PERSONALLY want to avoid. Since our government refuses to do so - and has proven repeatedly NOT to be on the side of consumers - I am overjoyed that someone is helping us identify those foods that contain the most chemicals. In fact, I think I should head over there and donate - and encourage anyone else annoyed by this post to do so as well.

I think this is great information - I have always wondered about the levels of pesticides found on the "dirty dozen" and how much of that we are actually ingesting. It's nice to know that when you can't eat organic that regular fruit and veggie consumption still outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure.

It does make me wonder why the EWG doesn't want to publish their results and findings if they feel like they are doing such a service to everyone.

Also, I think another commenter mentioned fruit/veggie wash - I always wonder if that even does anything? I mean, if they are doing periodic spraying of fruits/veggies at different growing stages, wouldn't pesticide be on the inside of it too??

Not judging, just trying to understand both sides to this.

@Claire - I agree with you that there are scientists that are corrupt. But in my experience, a vast majority of them want to do good science that is unbiased and ethical.

Why do you think the EWG is ethical and Dr. Winter isn't?

If you follow the money, EWG has taken money from corporations and Dr. Winter has not.

And as for me - I have published my policy regarding advertising, sponsorships, etc. here: and I am following the FTC guidelines regarding sponsorship and advertising.

My motivation for writing this article was that I do not want people to be afraid of eating fresh produce that isn't organic because of fear of pesticides.

FANTASTIC article, Lisa, thanks for all your research. I agree, while we should buy organic whenever possible, it's not always feasible. And eating an apple with minute pesticide residue that can be washed away is better than skipping the fruit completely! While I don't think EWG is purposefully trying to scare consumers, it does make you wonder why they don't go through the proper channels to support their claims. Makes you say hmmmm...

Organic produce can have organic pesticide residues as well - there are hundreds of products registered for pest control on organic produce. And, many conventional growers use these organic-registered products. (...which I guess makes them rather unconventional...)

Wow, I knew things were going downhill on this site, but this was a serious shocker. I opened this email thinking "oh it'll be another one where she shuts down someone trying to muddle the issue of healthy foods," but no. I 100% agree with the person above where we should buy as much organic as possible to encourage organic growers because personally, I'd rather have NO pesticides, and that's one of the purposes of organic! It is true eating conventional produce is better than eating none, but I approve of the dirty dozen list because it makes sense - it's any product where you eat the skin and/or has a permeable skin so the pesticides soak in and you can't just wash them off. There are many "credible" journal articles "proving" global warming is a myth, but all you have to do is look around! It's the same principle - we have so many more health problems today that people didn't have when they weren't ingesting all these chemicals. Plenty of FDA studies go through "proper channels," but they still release stuff that is dangerous and stifle new ideas because everyone is in someone's pocket these days.

I think I'm sticking with Dr. Mercola from now on - while he may go a little far on some things, he sounds much healthier than you. Officially unsubscribed.

Also worth mentioning here that "scientists" and the USDA say that ammonia-laced meat sludge is "safe" for our kids to eat in school meals. They also say it's "safe" to eat factory-farmed meat - despite the ridiculous number of people who become ill or even die from food poisoning due to the horrific sanitation conditions.

And as a final point, organic farms are far more likely to be small family-owned farms. So when you buy organic, you aren't just supporting the organics movement - you are supporting actual families with real farms - not megalithic corporations that don't care one bit about the land, the communities they inhabit, or the ecosystems they annihilate with their dangerous and toxic "growing" practices.

I just can't stop being disturbed by this post.

Hello again and thanks for your response to my previous post. You say Dr. Winter does not take money from corporations...well, he got a huge grant from the USDA, and the USDA is filled with unethical "scientists" with ties to Monsanto. Do an Internet search for Roger Beachy, who worked for the main research arm of the USDA and has ties to Monsanto. Beachy was quoted as saying "I'm concerned about the safety of organic food... I'm concerned about the issue of microbial contamination with organic." Beachy promoted GMOs and is anti-organic. Give him time, Dr. Winter will no doubt be working for Monsanto, either directly or indirectly and of course he's going to ensure he's on the side of possible future employers. Relative to your post, do you REALLY think people are eating less produce for fear of pesticide contamination? The people who truly care about the quality and safety of their food, are the ones seeking the best options and ensuring they eat a HEALTHY diet. The rest of the people out there are eating anything, regardless of the pesticides, GMOs, etc. Bottom line: all companies, farmers, growers, & makers should give full disclosure of what we're eating and honest labeling...isn't that what the FDA and USDA are supposed to ensure? Let me decide if I want to eat something grown with pesticides or not and likewise with GMOs.

While I agree (in theory) that buying organic foods at store is better, in practice it is usually not that affordable or that much better for the environment.

If you truly want organic go to your local farmers and support them, not the big agribusinesses that are buying up all the organic labels and the chemical companies that are buying Natural Grocery stores with politics.

Eat local and in season.

And yes, Claire, some people do eat less because they are being scared non stop by people like Mercola who claim everything is poison, but they can't afford the organic prices.

I think this is a great post and some people are missing the point. Fresh produce (even non-organic) is better than no produce. As far as the cereal options go, you are trying to simplify the process by looking at only a few key points instead of reading the entire label. Most people just don't have the time for it. I enjoy your blog very much, keep up the good work!

First of all , I want to say I appreciate all your hard work and trying to show both sides. While I don't agree with this info, I do like you are presenting both sides.

I am currently dealing with the issue at my kids school . I am trying to get organic apples in the cafe, because the level of pesticides over time in apples is toxic to little bodies. If you eat seasonal. Organic or local produce that is not spayed is doable.

Please check out the clean 15 and the dirty dozen on my website. This is not an issue of who is right and who is wrong. It is working together to create a better world for our kids. And making informed decisions. Thank you again lisa for your ideas and hard work


Amy, I don't think anyone here has missed the point. The post doesn't say "nonorganic fresh produce is better than no produce" - it is an attack on Environmental Working Group for not publishing in scientific journals - despite the fact that they have NEVER made claims that, say, a single nonorganic apple is "toxic." They produce a list of the twelve foods with the highest and lowest amount of pesticide residue, based on the exact information this researcher used here.

EWG NEVER tells people not to eat nonorganic produce - if anything, their "clean" list would only encourage people to buy those vegetables and fruits instead. I don't understand why anyone would object to those of us who prefer NOT to eat pesticides having the information about which produce is most likely to have pesticide residue so that we can choose to eat what we want. And while I think it's fine to disagree with us and to buy all nonorganic food, I think it's crappy to attack a nonprofit and act as if they're on some mission to horrify people and demand they publish findings when they're using USDA data. Maybe the intention was ok, but the delivery sucked.

Hey snackgirl, thanks for the info. I actually like reading both sides of the story.

I know you are getting slammed here but please continue your balanced info.

Dear Snack Girl,

I'm going to agree with Linda above me here and say thank you for posting this, even though I'm sure you knew it would stir controversy. I appreciate your balanced approach, contacting both sides for comment. I know many have strong opinions on this subject, and some here have stated their opposing opinions very strongly. Please don't let this discourage you. This is your website and your opinion, and I, for one, appreciate it. Please keep up the good work.



Lisa, I am with you all the way on learning and constantly questioning what is known about all sides of any issue. Experts in any field should invite all questions about their findings so that the consumer can make wise choices to protect their health. No expert on either of a question can have all of the answers. We as consumers must educate our selves and push all scientists and to keep us as well informed as possible.

I am glad that this society provides a place for all questions to be discussed and questioned. It allows all of us the do what is best for ourselves. Lisa continue to enlighten us and keep us informed even if there are times we may not agree. Please keep up your wonderful blog.

I think this is great information! Not everyone can afford organic produce, even though I would recommend buying it if possible, but that's not always the case. It's important you let us know what information is out there so we can make the best decisions possible for our individual budgets :)

I am a little disturbed by this post also. Sometimes I think concerns are misplaced. Bottom line is this - we should be eating REAL food as much as possible. I am MORE concerned about the artificial things in food like pesticides, preservatives and artificial colors than the natural things like sugar. We eat organically if possible but not always. However, if it is affordable, I would definitely prefer it. Not only is it better for our health but also for the health of the planet. We do not avoid produce if we cannot afford organic but organic is definitely better than non organic.

Wow! Lisa, I hope you have some tough skin. Some people are very passionate about this issue, sounds like, and you're getting all their steam this morning. Sheesh. A little kindness would have been good here for some of these ladies! As my mom would say, "who peed in their post toasties this morning?" (ha ha) My father runs an ag supply & feed & seed store and he and my hubby both have their private applicator license (for chemicals and pesticides) and are required to do HUGE amounts of CE classes each year. They've both told me that some of the 'organic' pesticides out there are more toxic than the regular ones. I grew up eating regular food, and i feed it to my family, too. I've never been an organic nut, nor will I be. As you, i believe in all things in moderation, and wash your stuff before you eat it, and eat as healthy as you can, and watch your sugar and fat intake. I appreciate you, all your hard work, your efforts in bringing us GREAT info each day, and enlightening us on new and exciting products and recipes. Keep up the hard work, and know that many of us out here appreciate and love you! ;)

@Angie - Sadly, I do not have tough skin and I hear it is difficult to develop. Actually, I hate controversy which makes me ill suited for this job - but I had this burning desire to talk about this issue. Some have called me brave - others, self-destructive :) thank you so much for your continued support.

Wow, there were some strong reactions to this post and some rather mean things said by a few. I just want you to know I love your blog and look forward to reading your posts. While I can appreciate someone wanting to avoid any pesticide residue in their diet, I believe that the actual risk to our health from ingesting the small amounts of residue present in conventional produce is small enough to not really concern me.

I still do by organic when it's convenient and not prohibitively more expensive but buying local and in season is far more important to me. It's better for the environment, you get to know your local farmers and the food just plain tastes better. So, visit your local farmer's market or take advantage of a CSA instead of worrying about buying organic at your local big chain grocery that probably gets it's organic produce from a big industrialized farm across the country. Anyway, just my two cents :)


Don't let it get to you too much. Some people can't handle being told that what they are doing may not actually be worth it. I'm with Angie M above - I've never been an organic nut, but I do like to go to our Farmer's market to help support our local businesses and to get fresh in season fruit. All things in moderation, and have some balance in our lives. My kids love cookies AND they love fruit. They drink water, milk, AND juice. They play on their DS, watch tv, (OMG!) AND play tennis and run around outside. Both sides of every issue is how we can make the right decisions for our families. Thank you for speaking up.


I tend to avoid controversial issues these days, as I like to keep my blood pressure nice and low. ;-)

However, I again want to thank you for posting on this subject. Regardless of controversy, at least we are all thinking about the foods we put in our mouths.

Thanks again!

I was obviously surprised by this post, as were others, but that's what I liked about it. Snack Girl is posting information on a view that goes against what she has typically supported. That shows honesty and integrity. I'm a psychology doctoral student so I get the importance of publication in a respected peer-reviewed scientific journal. Others without this experience might not understand the context of this lack of support. It's irresponsible of the EWG to give any kind of report or advice without this to give credibility to their facts. In psychology, as with all sciences, we would never accept random, unsupported suggestions about any kind of treatment or therapy. You don't have to stop buying organic, you just shouldn't give much thought to the dirty dozen list until it comes from an actual scientific study that was good enough to be published. It potentially says something about their methodology that they did not (and clearly don't intend to) try to publish the study the correct way. Thanks Lisa for once again providing useful, unbiased information.

Hi Lisa,

I was not expecting this post from you either, but I think you are spot on with pointing out that science is subject to peer review, and therefore (in my book) to be trusted over unsubstantiated claims. There are so many issues out there with people vehemently supporting completely opposite views. Sometimes a view is held because it will gain someone money or other benefits. More often though, I think people truly believe they are right and are doing what is right/saying what is true.

I agree with you that most (the VAST majority) of scientists are not corrupt. I work for USDA (but not the food safety people or the organic people), and everyone I know in USDA does the best science they can do. Sure we have to be supported in part by industry. That's because our budgets are so small compared to private industry! That doesn't mean we are going to do biased research.

Sorry, I think this comment ended up totally rambling. What I wanted to really say is HANG IN THERE! I have been so impressed with your blog and the following you have developed. Love ya!


I am less enamored of "organic" produce after finding a very small, well-preserved dead mouse in a bag of salad greens a few years ago. Just because something is "organic" doesn't mean it's good to eat! Thanks, Snack Girl, for your brave post! :-)

Lisa, I value your blog and the information you present. While this particular post surprised me, it pushed me to do some further research. It also helped me to feel mewhat more comfortable with my inability to always find organic foods that are local and affordable and my decision to settle for nonorganic fruits and vegetables. I'll continue to look forward to your daily post. And I'll no longer unthinkingly believe EWG's pronouncements. Thanks!

Excellent blog. Science procedures do matter. I'm hoping the EWG will read this and publish their report in a peer reviewed journal next year. Peer review methods are employed to maintain standards, improve performance and provide credibility. That's why we rely upon them. Thanks for the critical thinking lesson. Also, I've gotten some *great* snack tips from this blog.

Glad to see an article on produce that is realistic in the sense that the majority of famlies cannot afford organic produce, or have a convenient farmers market. I for one buy whatever healthy looking produce I can for the lowest price possible, wash and prepare and feed my family. Isn't that enough?

EWG attempted to post a full response to this piece, but of course it has not been approved. Please find it here:

Hi Lisa, thanks for this post. It's refreshing to see an article reminding us that it's OK to eat healthy and wholesome food grown by our nation's farmers, rather than another article trying to scare the pants off us and trying to make average consumers feel guilty about our food choices. Keep up the great work!

@Alex - Anything the EWG wants to post in this comment section is approved as long as it is not slanderous - i.e. you call me or my readers "idiots", "stupid", etc. Honestly, I don't know what you are talking about. Please send me your post directly and I will post it for you if our comment section isn't working for you.

Since everyone has their own agenda, pockets to line, and careers to further, it's difficult to believe much of anything which claims to be slathered with (occasionally pseudo) scientific proof.

Health extremists will naturally take this the wrong way--this is practically organic slander when taken out of context--but in truth, many organic products can be quite pricey, and really promoting conscientious choices about eating is much more productive then all this organic-or-death nonsense. One must mix and match as they can, and also take in their overall consumption (I eat strawberries quite rarely, so I'm certainly not shelling out $6 for an organic container).

I think the bottom line is, as pointed out, just get those fruits and veggies in as can be afforded, and let's not feel guilty about it. The line between healthy and unhealthy should not be teetering on this.


@Snackgirl: Leading Scientists Rely on and Back EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides

A central theme of Food Day is to work toward a more sustainable, healthy, less chemical-intensive food and farm system in the U.S. The Environmental Working Group shares this goal and thought it important for those concerned about the presence of toxic chemicals in food that nationally-recognized public health experts have endorsed EWG’s approach to creating its popular Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

Chensheng (Alex) Lu, Associate Professor of Environmental Exposure Biology at Harvard School of Public Health has advised parents and caregivers to use the Shopper’s Guide to “keep nutritional foods in their children’s diets but avoid the intake of pesticide residues in the high-pesticide-risk items.”

Full post here:

Alex: How do you define "high pesticide risk items?" I read Dr. Winter's Journal of Toxicology article and the residue levels found and described look pretty darn low to me. Seems like more fear-based rhetoric to me.

What's that saying about a fool and his money? Organic food is NOT pesticide-free and anyone who thinks they're spending all that extra cash to buy food without pesticides has been mislead.

Interesting debate. I personally try to buy local produce from farmers markets when I have the chance. I cannot afford to buy organic produce even though I do believe that it is better for the environment and potentially for human health if it is one day proven that the cumulative effect of the multiple pesticides/herbicides is harmful.

@Snackgirl - Thank you for contributing to a balanced debate. I think that it's human nature to blindly trust sources of information that seem to be unbiased as what they promote seems to only benefit the consumer. However there are many other possible scenarios.

A) The organization is filled with people that are afraid and are therefore spreading unproven information.

B) The organization does have an agenda which is invisible to the public eye. Could be political power or could be promotion of the organic industry. (The second if which is not necessarily bad, but local non-organic produce isn't proven to be bad either)

@ Stacie - It is not an attack on EWG. EWG may not have said that a single non-organic apple is toxic, but it is being implied by the list. Most consumers have not done their research on pesticides. It is normal for such a consumer to misunderstand the significance of the statements that EWG makes.

What would you think if you saw the statement: "98% of conventional apples had pesticides"?

Chances are you would conclude that eating non-organic apples would be highly detrimental to your health. If you couldn't afford the higher price tag, you would avoid apples altogether.

However, the amount and toxicity of pesticide residue on the apples could be 10,000 times lower than what it takes to cause harm.

So for the average American that already does not eat enough fruits and vegetables, cutting out some of the most commonly eaten (and most healthy) produce would serve to further degrade their health.

Maybe EWG should re-direct their resources to promote local farming, community sustained agriculture, non-certified organic produce, etc.

That's my 2 cents.

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