If I want to avoid pesticides should I follow the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen recommendations?

Many of my patients have told me that they are fearful of eating most produce due to the potential pesticide exposure, especially once they became diagnosed with cancer. Understandably, this was largely due to concern that it could make their cancer worse or that it could potentially cause a reoccurrence of their cancer if they had already undergone treatment. This sadly resulted in some of them avoiding produce almost all together, as organic and other non-conventional methods weren’t in their budget. Most people are already not eating an adequate amount of fruits and vegetables each day.

With this added barrier of fear of pesticides in foods, it makes it that much harder to eat enough produce to reap the benefits of the phytochemicals in plants for cancer survivors. While being an informed consumer is something we should pride ourselves in, we shouldn’t let some of our fears prevent us from eating nutrient rich foods. We have to consider the risks and benefits of eating our daily-recommended fruits and veggies versus not meeting these recommendations. Knowing the benefits of fruits and veggies with cancer prevention has helped lead to the creation of the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen lists.

Have you heard of these lists? They were created by the Environmental Working Group as a shopping guide which indicates the produce that is highest in the amount of pesticide residues and the produce lowest in pesticide residues. The belief is that you can buy foods with fewer types of pesticides and lower overall concentrations of pesticide residues if you avoid the Dirty Dozen and eat more of the Clean Fifteen. Many of my patients inquire if they should follow these lists when shopping for produce or if they should be following something else instead.

There’s debate on how produce items are deemed dirty or clean and the scientific method for evaluating them. An article published in the peer reviewed Journal of Toxicology evaluated their methods. What they found is that some pesticides are more toxic than others, but the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) scoring system considers all pesticides to be equal. What’s more is the EWG doesn’t relate the pesticide amounts to known safety standards. I think that the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen can be one of many tools that can help guide you into making the choices that are right for you, but it’s not the only tool and isn’t necessarily the best one.

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Safe Fruits and Veggies is a research based resource that I recommend others try. They are an alliance for food and farming that uses science-based information about the safety of organic and conventional produce. My favorite tool they provide on their website is their pesticide residue calculator. I recommend people to use it to see how much of the Dirty Dozen produce items that you would have to eat in order to not see adverse effects. As you can see there is no physical way you can consume the amount of produce that’s listed to get to a harmful amount of pesticide residue. It’s liberating to know that you don’t have to worry too much!

Washing produce helps eliminate pesticides, but not completely. If you peel fruits and veggies then you can remove more pesticides, but you will lose important phytochemicals and nutrients that you want to consume by eating produce. My recommendation is to wash your produce and keep the skin intact. For more on cleaning produce at home, check out my blog post on this.

Another method that works for some people is to buy thicker-skinned produce items if they are conventionally grown and thinner skinned produced items if they are organically grown or from a farmer’s market that doesn’t use pesticides. The thought is that pesticides are less likely to leach through thicker skinned items such as citrus, bananas, and melons and that it is more likely to do so with thinner skinned items like berries and mushrooms. If you feel more comfortable using this method you can try it out, but it’s good to note that most produce (no matter the production method) is typically well below the the legal limit of pesticide use that is known to be safe.

All produce, including conventionally grown produce nourishes your body in many ways, despite the use of any man made pesticides used in the US (to read more on this see conventional and organic blog post). Multiple government agencies that regulate our exposure to pesticides have not found that there are any serious health risks associated with consuming non-organic produce based off many scientific studies complied over decades of research.

Fear of pesticides can drive people away from eating fruits and vegetables if they aren’t organic. I don’t recommend avoiding eating produce because eating organic is not in your budget or that only conventional produce is available at the store. Not consuming fruits and vegetables daily can be more harmful than potential pesticide exposure. Another thing to consider is that just because something is labeled organic, doesn’t mean it is pesticide free. Some pesticides are allowed on organic foods. Overall it really comes down to a personal choice in terms of your comfort level of consuming conventional produce or not. You can still stick with organic if this is your preference or shop at your local farmer’s market, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing in terms of your choices. Remember, any produce in the US is better than no produce!

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