On the Table

On the Table: A dirty dozen of contaminated fruits and vegetables

CorrespondentApril 30, 2013 

Apple lovers should always buy organic.

Stick with organic strawberries, grapes and celery, too. Conventional varieties of these summertime staples are among the most contaminated of fruits and vegetables, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group.

The group just released the ninth annual Dirty Dozen list, found in its 2013 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. There you’ll also find a list of the Clean Fifteen.

The group updates the guide annually using data from nearly 30,000 food samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. The samples are washed or peeled before testing, so the results reflect foods as they are actually eaten.

I keep my list close at hand when I shop, and you should, too.

It’s important to minimize your exposure to pesticide residues, and that’s especially true for babies and young children. Their small bodies and rapid growth and development make them particularly vulnerable to damage from environmental contaminants.

Other foods that are among the most contaminated include peaches, spinach, bell peppers, imported nectarines, cucumbers, potatoes, cherry tomatoes and hot peppers. This year’s list is expanded to include special cases: summer squash and leafy greens – especially kale and collards.

These last few foods didn’t fit the methodology used for the other foods in the Dirty Dozen list, but they tested positive for some potent neurotoxins. Buy organic.

Many of these “dirties” are easy to grow in your backyard, a money-saving alternative to buying conventional produce. Of course, that assumes you can grow them in a space that’s safe from other chemical contaminants around your house and neighborhood.

The guide provides some good news, too. You generally don’t have to worry about pesticide contamination in asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn and eggplant.

But if you’re like me, all these do’s and don’ts become hard to remember when you’re standing in the produce section at the supermarket. If you don’t trust your memory, get the app for your cellphone or print the shopping guide at ewg.org/foodnews.

Shop strategically. Buy organic when you can and when you should.

Suzanne Hobbs is a registered dietitian and clinical associate professor of health policy and management and nutrition at UNC-Chapel Hill. Reach her at suzanne@onthetable.net; follow her Twitter, @suzannehobbs.

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