Top 12 “Dirty” List and How To Clean Your Fruits and Veggies To Reduce Pesticide Exposure

Even a thorough rinse under tap water (30 – 60 seconds) can reduce the amount of pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables. This advice comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a well respected non-profit advocacy organization dedicated to protecting human and environmental health.

bags of fresh fruit and veggies

I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to remind my kids to rinse before eating a peach or an apple they’ve just grabbed from the fruit bowl. This thought makes me realize that I should really just wash them all myself before putting them out, but I want them to learn the importance of doing it themselves – so they can eat safely through their own good habits.

Why Is Eating Organic So Important?

Tragically, close to 70% of all fresh produce grown conventionally in the US – not organically – have pesticide residues, based on test results from the US Department of Agriculture.

The humble spinach, that fantastically nutritious green veggie that bestows great strength on Popeye (and the rest of us too!) is one of the worst offenders, unfortunately. Can you believe that tests on spinach samples showed 1.8X the amount (by weight) of pesticide residue than any other fresh produce? I was so shocked when I read that!

The Problem with Pesticides

Pesticides have been linked to nervous system damage, as well as cancer and hormone disruption. It’s a no-brainer to stay away from them as much as possible. All you have to do is read some of the controversy surrounding the popular herbicide Roundup to make you think.  In 2017, a Californian man was awarded $289 million by jurors as compensation for getting cancer from exposure to the weedkiller.

Another frightening finding was published by the EWG in October 2018 concerning Roundup. Its active ingredient, glyphosate, was found in 28 samples of favored oat-based cereals such as Cheerios. On top of this, 26 of those samples showed glyphosate residues at levels above that deemed safe for children by EWG scientists.

How many bowls of cereal and oatmeal have American kids eaten that came with a dose of weed killer? That’s a question only General Mills, PepsiCo and other food companies can answer,” said EWG President Ken Cook. “But if those companies would just switch to oats that aren’t sprayed with glyphosate, parents wouldn’t have to wonder if their kids’ breakfasts contained a chemical linked to cancer. Glyphosate and other cancer-causing chemicals simply don’t belong in children’s food, period.

All this just underlines the need for greater awareness about the processing of our food, so we can make better decisions for ourselves and our families about what we put into our mouths. One excellent source of information is the “Dirty Dozen” list.

Dirty Dozen List + 1

Every year the EWG publishes its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. This report lists the 12 “dirtiest” fruits and vegetables based on tests carried out by the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and kale tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.

So what makes the produce on this list so “dirty?” Check out this quick summary of the pertinent bits here. And further down are some easy solutions for washing your fruits and vegetables to get rid of as much dirt, pesticide residue, and bacteria as possible.

#1 Strawberries

handful of strawberries

Pesticides + Poison Gases = Cheap, Year-Round Strawberries

Environmental Working Group

I was flabbergasted when I read the latest report on strawberries. It’s in the number one spot for very good reasons. Here are a few:

  • A whopping 81 pesticides were found in varying combinations in the strawberry samples test by the USDA in 2015-2016.
  • 23 different pesticide and pesticide breakdown residues were detected in one strawberry sample.
  • The insecticide Bifenthrin, named as a possible human carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency, was found on more than 29 percent of strawberry samples.
  • Huge volumes of toxic gases called fumigants are injected into the strawberry-growing soil to sterilize it, for example: chloropicrin, the active ingredient in tear gas!

#2 Spinach

It is disturbing to know that the insecticide DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) was found in 40% of non-organic spinach samples. This dangerous neurotoxin was banned from agricultural use in the US way back in 1972 but is still undermining our environment and our health. It is considered a possible carcinogen, according to the Center for Disease Control. Learn more from CDC’s fact sheet on DDT.

Also found in spinach samples was the neurotoxic insecticide, Permethrin. Over 76 percent of the samples contained Permethrin, which wreaks havoc on the nervous system, especially in children.

Canned and frozen spinach samples turned up with pesticides too, so clearly cooking or freezing doesn’t entirely get rid of them.

#3 Kale

New to the list is trendy, nutrient-rich kale. This is so sad. The USDA had not tested kale samples in close to ten years, but still, the new findings came as a bit of a surprise.

60 percent of all kale samples showed up with DCPA, also known as Dacthal. The Environmental Protection Agency classified this chemical as a possible human carcinogen (back in 1995) and indicated harm to the liver, thyroid, lungs and kidneys. Dacthal has been banned in Europe for ten years but is still being consumed by Americans in “healthy” salads, soups, and smoothies!

#4 Nectarines

Nearly 94% of nectarine samples contained more than two pesticides. One conventionally grown sample of nectarines contained 15 different pesticide residues.

#5 Apples

80% of conventionally grown apples tested positive for pesticide residues, and the average apple contains 4.4 pesticide residues.

Even more horrifying is that 80% of them contained diphenylamine, a pesticide banned in Europe!  Diphenylamine is a post-harvest fungicide used on apples to prevent browning during storage, but it is linked to all kinds of health problems and reproductive hazards in particular. It was even found in 36 percent of applesauce samples, though in lower amounts.

#6 Grapes

More affected than apples, 96% of conventional grapes were found to contain pesticide residues. On average, grapes contain 5 different pesticides.

#7 Peaches

Here I was thinking apples and grapes were the worst… More than 99% of conventional peaches had detectable pesticide residues!

#8 Cherries

30% of cherry samples contained iprodione, a pesticide not allowed in Europe, which may cause cancer.

sliced fruit

#9 Pears

Several pesticides in relatively high concentrations, including insecticides and fungicides, were detected in the pear samples tested. More than half were shown to contain residues of five or more pesticides.

#10 Tomatoes

15 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products were found in one tomato sample, while on average almost four pesticides were detected on the conventionally grown tomatoes tested.

#11 Celery

More than 95 percent of conventional celery samples were found to contain pesticides.

#12 Potatoes

Conventional potatoes were found to contain more pesticide residues by weight than any other crop. The herbicide chlorpropham makes up the bulk of pesticides detected on potatoes. Chlorpropham, which acts as a weed killer and sprout suppressant, is known to have a negative impact on the central nervous system.

Plus: Hot Peppers

If you’re into your chili and Tabasco, then listen up. Three insecticides – acephate, chlorpyrifos and oxamyl – are still permitted on crops of hot peppers, but banned on many others. In recent tests by the USDA, 739 hot pepper samples were found to hold residues of these three toxins at levels high enough to be a concern.

Hot Pepper lover? The best thing to do is to eat them cooked. Cooking somewhat reduces pesticide levels according to the EWG.

Ideally, you would buy these “dirty” fruits and veggies in their organic form. But if you can’t afford it, make sure you record this Dirty Dozen list in the Notes app on your cell phone for easy access at the grocery store. Then do whatever you can to peel or wash it off and reduce your toxic intake. You won’t be able to get rid of all the pesticides, unfortunately, as they can affect a plant systemically, but at least you can reduce your exposure.

How to Clean Your Fruits and Veggies

Peeling off the skin will help to diminish pesticide exposure. But if you’re like me and you love the crunchiness of apple skin, as well its nutritional benefits, you may choose to stick to washing.

DIY Veggie Cleaner

I use Sophie Uliano’s Veggie Cleaner Spray to wash my produce, especially the softer fruits, and it’s super-easy to make. I love knowing that I’ve done what I can to remove as many chemicals as possible.

All you have to do is mix these ingredients together and pour into a spray bottle. Then spray your produce and leave for 5 to 10 mins.

  • 1 Cup of water
  • 1 Cup of distilled white vinegar
  • 1 Tablespoon of Baking Soda
  • 20 drops of Grapefruit Seed Extract (I like using lemon essential oil, or the juice of 1/2 a lemon, as recommended by Dr. Oz)

Rinse well with cold water and eat with peace of mind!

Baking Soda Soak

An even easier cleaning method is to soak your produce in a bowl of water and baking soda (3-4 Tablespoons) for 12-15 minutes.

How to Wash Green Leafy Vegetables

This baking soda soak is also a great way to get rid of germs and bacteria, especially from leafy vegetables which have ridges that make it easy for bacteria to stick to. In addition, swish the leaves around to dislodge any grit that has gotten caught in the stems and ridges. Then rinse with cold water.

Even if the green leafies come in a package that says “Prewashed and Ready to Eat,” such as salad mix, it’s wiser to go ahead and wash anyway. There’s still a possibility that some contaminants were missed.

Note: washing with hot water can cause pesticide residues to soak even further into the produce!

Washing Firm Produce

For firmer vegetables and fruits, scrub gently after soaking and rinse. Apples especially need this scrub with a soft-bristled brush, as they are sprayed with a chemical to make them shiny. Pat dry before storing. This will stop microorganisms moving in!

How to Wash Soft Fruits

For softer fruits such as peaches and nectarines, rinse fairly quickly in the baking soda solution or they’ll get all soggy and gross! That’s why I prefer using the spray wash above. No scrubbing, but you could rub over the skin gently with your hands while rinsing with cold water.

As for berries, it’s best to wash them just before eating as they are prone to attracting mold if you wash them and put them in the fridge to eat later.

Grapes Need Special Treatment

It’s pretty hard to clean grapes properly, so the best way to do it is with both baking soda and salt. Sprinkle 1 to 2 teaspoons of each over your bowl and grapes. Shake the grapes around so that as many as possible are covered by the soda and salt. After a minute or so, rinse well with cold water.

I was interested to read this study published in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry. It was found that baking soda (in a 10mg/ml solution) was very effective in removing pesticide residues from the surface of an apple and some but not all those that penetrated deeper into the peel. So washing this way doesn’t do the complete removal job, but it’s a great start!

Vinegar Wash Works Well Too

If you have a whole lot of produce to wash, you can put them in a sinkful of water together with 1 cup of apple cider vinegar or regular vinegar and 1 teaspoon of salt. Leave for 10 to 15 minutes and rinse. Dry for storage. Done!

This vinegar wash will also help to remove that waxy chemical coating sprayed on fruits such as cherries and apples.

Store-bought Cleaners Don’t Work

And how about this: The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station carried out a study to compare the effectiveness of rinsing with water only versus commercial veggie wash products. It was found that the veggie wash does NOT enhance the removal of pesticide residues. In fact, they often contain chemicals such as chlorine. So save your money and stick to simple water and baking soda!

Even the FDA advises consumers against using commercial product wash or detergents.

Now, please, please don’t let all this talk of pesticides turn you off eating your fruits and veggies! Conventional produce is still waaay better than little or no produce at all, and that’s why I wash.

All research agrees on the health benefits of a diet that includes fruits and vegetables, and eating fresh produce – organic or conventional, as budget allows – is essential for health.

Environmental Working Group

Clean 15

In addition to the very helpful Dirty Dozen list, EWG also provides us with its “Clean Fifteen” – those fruits and veggies that carry the lowest concentrations of pesticide residues.

So eat this conventional produce to your heart’s content:

  • avocados (in top 2 of cleanest)
  • sweet corn (in top 2)
  • pineapples
  • frozen sweet peas
  • onions
  • papayas
  • eggplants
  • asparagus
  • kiwis
  • cabbages
  • cauliflower
  • cantaloupes
  • broccoli
  • mushrooms
  • honeydew melons

Notably, not one fruit on this list was found to contain more than four pesticides. As for the veggies, only cabbage contained pesticides. Most encouragingly, more than 70 percent of the fruit and vegetable samples from this list showed no pesticide residues.

The Bottom Line

GO ORGANIC as much as possible if you can. Otherwise, SHOP USING THE DIRTY DOZEN AND CLEAN FIFTEEN LISTS as a guide, and WASH AND RINSE with water and baking soda, or make your own veggie cleaner.

May Shelton

May lives the "village" lifestyle with hubby, two kids, one cat, and grandparents in tow. With various food allergies and auto-immune challenges to manage, eating and living well is an absolute priority in the family!

4 thoughts on “Top 12 “Dirty” List and How To Clean Your Fruits and Veggies To Reduce Pesticide Exposure”

  1. Excellent article May. I’ve been planning on writing something similar but never could find the right time.

    I like your soaking recipe. Most of my fruits and vegetables I eat are organics and I cannot insist more on what you already wrote. Go for organic and non-processed food, that is all we have left to have an healthy nutrition.

    If I may add something to your excellent, is that we also have to be careful of the origin of our foods, China for example has submerged the world market with so called organic fruits and vegetables but in their country the use of some pesticides on organic products are allowed (or sometimes not controlled) and they end up in our plates without knowing the threat.

    If you’re a ginger fan, know that even organic ginger from China can be polluted with dangerous pesticides. You’ll know it as it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth compared to what you’re used to.

    • Thank you for pointing out the importance of food origin – so important! I try to support our local food co-op wherever possible. We need our local growers more than ever, don’t we?

  2. You mentioned that frozen spinach still had pesticides.
    Are frozen foods any less polluted than fresh?
    I assume that frozen and fresh get the same chemical treatments while growing.
    So, does freezing have any effect on reducing chemicals?
    I can’t see how it would, but If you know more about this, I’m all ears.

    • Interesting question, Richard. According to the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program 2009 test results, 29 different pesticide residues were found on frozen spinach samples, while fresh spinach samples produced 54 pesticide residues (only 18 for canned! but then you have to take into account BPA leaching from cans). This is mainly attributed to the washing and prep work that happens before packaging, and doesn’t have anything to do with the freezing process. Also, not all produce necessarily get the same chemical treatments. Berries, for example, which are grown for the purpose of being frozen immediately after harvesting, are generally exposed to less pesticides because they do not have to stay looking bright and colorful for many days as fresh berries do. Things are not so straightforward these days and it takes a bit of digging around to find out what really happens to our food.


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