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Should You Eat Organic Produce?
Diving into the Dirty Dozen™.

Author: be well™ with Big Y® Registered Dietitian Team

Have you ever heard the phrase, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?” While a single apple won’t necessarily keep you from getting sick, the overall message is to eat your fruits and vegetables. What exactly do they do for you? Loaded with vitamins, minerals and fiber, fruits and veggies keep you fueled with vital nutrients that keep you feeling good. When shopping for fresh produce, you may notice that there are differences between the selections, a major identifier being organic- versus conventionally-grown.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has curated two lists regarding fresh produce, one called the Dirty Dozen™ and other called the Clean Fifteen™. The EWG addresses the number of different pesticides that may be found residually on conventionally-grown produce by ranking them on the Dirty Dozen™. The EWG encourages that if you wish to consume any item on the Dirty Dozen™, you should only buy it organically grown1. Should you rely on this list as a guide for what produce to buy? Let’s dive in.

The EWG and the “Dirty Dozen”

Pesticides are used in conventional farming to prevent crops from being lost to pests.2 The Dirty Dozen™ list ranks 12 conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables that were found to have the highest number of different pesticides used, while the Clean Fifteen™ lists the produce that have the fewest number. Included on the 2024 Dirty Dozen™ listing are strawberries, spinach, kale, collard and mustard greens, grapes, peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, bell and hot peppers, cherries, blueberries and green beans1.

While the total number of pesticides found on any given produce item is taken into consideration for these listings, the amount of each pesticide is not, which can be misleading. For example, if one fruit is found to have high amounts of one type of pesticide on it, it could be ranked as “safer’” compared to another fruit that could be ranked “less safe” because multiple pesticides, even minimal amounts, were found. 

The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) pesticide residue program reports that the amount of pesticide residues being found on produce are far below levels that could pose any considered health risk.3 To put it into perspective, an average woman could consume 453 servings of strawberries, which is 3,624 strawberries, with the highest pesticide residue recorded by the USDA without risk of experiencing any adverse health effect.4 The pesticide tolerance regulations that farmers must follow are put in place by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and are set at levels that ensure there is no risk of harm from pesticide residue exposure on the produce.

Organic Versus Conventional Produce

If an item is organic, it means the product could have been grown with natural pesticide sources among other specific farming practices such as crop-rotation, cover cropping and water management practices.5,6 While, organic farming methods can be more environmentally-friendly, they may also lead to increased cost for farmers, a shorter shelf life for the end product and little to no significant nutritional difference compared to conventional produce.7 Both organically- and conventionally-grown produce have their pro’s and con’s when assessing farming methods and impact on the environment, but both are sufficient options when aiming to add produce into your life.

Should You Buy Organic or Conventional?

With reports showing that only 9% of adults are eating the recommended amount of vegetables and 12% of adults are eating the recommended amount of fruit, increasing your consumption of any produce in any form is the ultimate goal.8 Conventionally- or organically-grown produce are both viable options for anyone aiming to eat enough fruits and veggies.

The Truth About Fruits and Vegetables

To put it simply, both organic- and conventionally-grown produce is going to nourish your body. Focus on eating adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables, at least 2 cups fruit and 2-3 cups vegetables per day, in any form. This includes frozen, canned, dried, fresh or 100% juice.

1  Environmental Working Group. EWG’s 2024 shopper’s guide to pesticides in produce: The dirty dozen. Accessed March, 25, 2024. https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/dirty-dozen.php.
2  United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS). Fertilizers & pesticides. Accessed August 8, 2023. https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/farm-practices-management/fertilizers-pesticides/.
3  United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Food and pesticides. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/safepestcontrol/food-and-pesticides.
4  Alliance for Food and Farming. For Safe Fruits and Veggies. Calculate safe fruits and veggies. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.safefruitsandveggies.com/calculate/.
5  United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Organic farming. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.epa.gov/agriculture/organic-farming.
6  Organic Farming Research Foundation. Organic FAQs. Accessed August 18, 2023. https://ofrf.org/resources/organic-faqs/.
7  Marilyn Damord. Is organic food really better for you? Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.ycp.edu/about-us/offices-and-departments/communications/blog/is-organic-food-really-better-for-you.php.
8  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables. Accessed August 15, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/nccdphp/dnpao/images/news/shopping-for-produce.jpg.

Published 4/17/2024