Quite a while ago, Consumer Reports had an article recommending a dozen foods that we should always buy organic. I have seen many lists of “the dirty dozen of food”, often with some differences between them. Some of the items make all the lists and are fairly well known for their high chemical residue level. I like the Consumer Reports list because they follow a guide put out by The Environmental Working Group that has a lot of research behind it. Although the Consumer Reports list was certainly accurate, it was published in alphabetical order. Here is that same list in the order that really matters, listed by highest chemical residue level first. In addition, I have also included links to descriptive lists of some of the specific pesticides, fungicides, etc., used on each of the foods. The number of different pesticides approved for use on some foods, is just staggering… and scary.
I also researched the FDA’s website for information on the actual levels of chemicals found in food. The FDA tests samples of food for both approved and unapproved chemicals. The reports the FDA have produced for public consumption in the past few years seem to contain little specific information and emphasize how much of the food supply tested falls within the FDA limits of tolerance. I guess they don’t want to get the citizenry too alarmed. But, as a consumer of organic foods, and an advocate for a safe, sustainable food supply, I want lists that tell me what is in my food, period. It is nice that the FDA can advertise when chemical residues are within their range of acceptable levels, but…psst, hey FDA… there is a problem with emphasizing that information. Many of us have a much different idea than yours of what level of poison is acceptable in the food we buy. The problem is that unless we test everything we put in our mouths, we can not be sure our food is clean. Further, the FDA can only test a very small percentage of our food. At least if we buy certified organic food, and the process works as intended, we can feel more certain we are not contributing to the use of these chemicals.
In the latest FDA report I could find, published in May, 2005, the FDA’s domestic testing program found acceptable levels of contamination with pesticides, (what the FDA calls “nonviolative” levels), in 49.2% of fruit tested, 28.9% of vegetables, 26% of grains, and 23.8% of seafood. Fruits and vegetables were found to be “violative” in 2 -3% of the samples. The FDA report also includes a category of food tested called “other”. In this category, almost 17% of the tested samples were found to violate FDA safe levels! Testing of imported fruits and vegetables found approximately the same level of contamination, but a higher percentage, (5.3% in fruit and 6.7% in vegetables), were found in violation of acceptable levels.
I also downloaded and reviewed a few of the database files the FDA used to compile the reports. It is too much to get into here, but reviewing the data was eye opening. Just one example…. Even though the FDA only samples a very small percentage of food sold to consumers, (6,766 samples from over 100 countries), they check those samples for a staggering, almost uncountable, number of chemicals. Even I was stunned at the number of different poisons that are used on food!
I did not find anything that shows the results of FDA testing for chemical fertilizer levels in food. I don’t know if I just did not locate information on fertilizers or if the FDA does not test for chemical fertilizer contamination. If I come across any data on fertilizers, I’ll do a write up on that. It maybe that the way plants take up and utilize nutrients makes it difficult to test for residues. If anyone reading this knows of a fertilizer testing program, please leave a comment so I can track it down. The compounds listed below seem to be mainly pesticides and fungicides.
The foods are rated 1 -100 with 1 being the lowest and 100 being the highest possible residue of chemicals. These 12 foods should be an organic purchase whenever possible.
Without further proselytizing, on to the list!
Peaches: Rating of 100. A no-brainer when you think about the soft, fuzzy, but porus skin a peach has. I am not surprised peaches were the worst. Anything sprayed on a peach is going to be there when you eat it, no matter how well you wash it. Definitly organic only! The top 50 chemicals used on peaches are listed here . The FDA also tests for the following which, I believe, are not aproved for use on peaches. Dinocap, Formetanate hydrochloride.
Apples: Rating of 89. The top 50 chemicals applied to apples are listed here. One batch of test performed on apples by the FDA detected 36 chemicals, close to 50% being neuro-toxins. The FDA also tests for the following which, I believe, are not aproved for use on apples. Prothiofos, Terbuthylazine, Dinocap, Formetanate hydrochloride, Propargite, Thiabendazole.
Bell Peppers: Rating = 86. The top 50 chemicals. More than 39 different pesticides have been found on bell peppers. On average, when tested, 68% of pepper samples contain measurable amounts of pesticides. In addition, fungicides and chemical ripening agents are found on some pepper samples.
Celery: Rating = 85. Top 50 chemicals. One study found pesticide residues on 94% of the celery tested.
Strawberries: Rating = 82. Top 50 chemicals. Tested for, but unapproved use: Benomyl, Formetanate hydrochloride. I am surprised to see strawberries are not at the top of the list. I leaned that strawberries are the most heavily treated crop in the U.S. covered with an average of 300 pounds of chemicals per acre. The average treatment rate for all crops is 25 pounds per acre. Strawberries must clean up well to get down to the 4th place on this list.
Cherries: Rating = 75. Top 50 chemicals. Cherries grown in the U.S. are have three times more pesticide residue than imported cherries.
Pears: Rating = 65. Top 50 chemicals. 4% of domestic and 10% or imported pears exceeded FDA approved levels of chemical comtamination.
Grapes (imported): Rating = 65. Top 50 chemicals. Atrazine, Dinocap, Simazine. I learned years ago that grapes were often had high levels of fungicides and pesticides on them. Although chemicals were found on 86% of the grapes tested, they are only 7th on this list. Domestic grapes were 19th with a rating of 43.
Spinach: Rating = 60. Top 50 chemicals. Although 8th on list list, one study conducted by the FDA found spinach to be one of the most commonly tainted crops. Some of the pesticides used on spinach are the most powerful toxins available. My guess is that this is because a common pest on spinach is the leaf miner. This fly lays its eggs on the underside of the spinach leaf. When the egss hatch, the larvae tunnel all around through the leaf, developing into quite juicy little worms. In my garden, once the leaf miner season starts, I check each spinach leaf I pick before it goes into my salad. Obviously commercial growers can’t do that, hence the heavy pesticide use. Anyone know how the organic commercial farmers grow spinach?
Lettuce: Rating = 59. Top 50 chemicals. This one stumps me. I have grown lettuce for over 30 years and have never witnessed a problem with bugs or disease. Even the leaf miner that attacks my spinach does not bother my lettuce. I will really have to find out what the conventional growers are going after with their use of chemicals on lettuce.
Potatoes: Rating = 58. Top 50 chemicals. Potato growers have reduced their use of pesticides a bit in recent years, but spraying for pests like the potato tuber moth is still common. Ironically, one of the things potatoes growers are looking for in their battle against pests in is the use of genetically modified seed potatoes. Oh, boy…………….
Carrots, green beans, cucumbers, raspberries, domestic grapes, and oranges all rated above 40 for chemical residue.
Onions and avocados were the best, both rated 1.
Update: This is one of the most visited posts on this site. In late 2011 I revisited all the information above and it still holds true. I wish I could say that a couple of years of progress has been made in cleaning up our food supply, but sadly I can’t. If you can, buy organic. If you can’t get organic, at least try to buy local. Knowing who your farmer or food producer is gives great peace of mind.