You stare at the organic strawberries at the grocery store and wonder: “Is it worthwhile paying the extra cost?” Are there certain foods you truly need to buy organic? Everything is more expensive in the organic section, and the strawberries aren’t as vibrant in color. Should you buy the organic strawberries? Yes! Please don’t overlook the organic section; it holds significant value for your health.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting the environment and human health by bringing awareness to toxicity concerns and advocating for cleaner living. If there’s one thing we can tell from the EWG’s 2023 Dirty Dozen list, it’s this: prioritize buying organic strawberries. Strawberries have consistently claimed the top spot on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen List for several years now. Each year, these berries are followed by 11 other foods with higher pesticide residues. These are the foods for which choosing organic is essential.
Pesticide exposure is linked to reproductive problems, immune issues, cancer, development problems, Parkinson’s disease, and endocrine-related disorders. (1) The EWG found that nearly 75% of conventionally grown produce is contaminated with the residue of at least one pesticide. Strawberries were among the worst offenders, with 99% of samples contaminated with at least one pesticide. One-third of the strawberries tested had residues from 10 or more pesticides, and one sample had residues from 22 different pesticides and breakdown products. (2) Strawberry samples, in general, contained residues of 81 different pesticides in a variety of combinations. That’s a lot of pesticide on a berry!
If you can only go organic for 12 fresh produce items, start with strawberries and the others on this list. Then we can talk about the others.
EWG’s 2023 Dirty Dozen List (Buy Organic)
According to the 2023 report, here are 12 foods you should buy organic: (2)
- Kale, collards, and mustard greens
- Bell peppers and hot peppers
- Green beans
The most dangerous chemicals found on strawberries were Carbendazim (16% of samples) and Bifenthrin (29% of samples). Carbendazim is a fungicide that damages the male reproductive system, and the EU has banned it due to its disrupting effects on hormones. Bifenthrin is an insecticide the EPA has designated as a possible human carcinogen. While it’s disturbing to find residues of these chemicals on strawberries, their levels aren’t outside regulations. Only about 5.6% of strawberries tested over 2015 and 2016 had illegally high levels of pesticide residues. (3)
The Dangers of the Dirty Dozen and Pesticides
To lower your exposure to toxic pesticides, prioritize buying organic versions of the dirty dozen. Why? There is a lot of evidence showing the dangers of pesticides.
Growing evidence links specific illnesses and deformities in humans and animals to endocrine-disrupting pesticides. (4) Exposure to these chemicals has been linked to lower IQs in the children of exposed mothers, higher rates of prostate cancer in farm workers, and heightened rates of ADHD. (5) Because the effects of these endocrine-disrupting pesticides may be delayed and more difficult to trace back to the pesticides, we are just beginning to learn the potential impacts.
Non-organic fruits and vegetables are grown with synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. That means the potential for ingesting 1, or a combination of many, of the 230 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products is high. All foods on the dirty dozen list tested higher for pesticide residues than other conventionally grown fruits and veggies. On average, spinach had 1.8 times more pesticide residue than other produce.
One study looked at organophosphorus pesticide exposure in preschool children and found children who ate conventional diets had six times higher levels of one pesticide metabolite than children whose diet was primarily organic. (6) Eating conventional vegetables means a higher pesticide burden on your body.
Don’t worry; changing your diet can have an immediate and dramatic “protective effect.” The outlook is good, according to one study. Researchers monitored the urine of school children on conventional diets and then switched them to an organic diet for five days. The levels of pesticide metabolites went to non-detectable levels immediately after introducing the organic diet and remained that way until children returned to a conventional diet. (7)
Organic Health Benefits
Along with the evidence of pesticide danger growing, the evidence that organic fruits and vegetables are higher in antioxidants continues to grow. One study considered 343 peer reviewed publications to find there was significant differences between organic and nonorganic produce. They found substantially higher concentrations of antioxidants, like polyphenolics. (8)
Antioxidants fight free radicals in our bodies and protect us from a wide range of illnesses including neurodegenerative diseases and cancers. One study comparing organic and conventional growing practices found higher phenolic content in the organic tomatoes, and it also found it probable that the organic growing methods, that did not use artificial nutrients, could activate the natural defense mechanisms of the organic tomato plants. (9)
Remember that strawberry that was a little less than vibrant. That’s the strawberry that you want! A study looked at strawberries grown in the same geographical area comparing organic and conventional growing techniques. Organic strawberries were darker, less vivid and had higher nutritional antioxidants! (10)
Less Metal Contamination?
The review of 343 studies also showed that the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers can also mean significantly higher concentrations of toxic metals, like cadmium. (7) This nonessential metal is highly toxic and can be absorbed by the body to be stored for a lifetime. (11) Heavy metal toxicity can lead to a variety of symptoms and illnesses. To learn more, check out our article on metals.
Skip the Dirty Dozen and Go Organic
When you look at the mounting evidence of the dangers of pesticides, it just doesn’t seem worth the risk, does it? Especially, when you look at the benefits of such an easy swap of going organic. It’s worth the investment! We definitely recommend always choosing organic. If it is too cost prohibitive start by choosing organic swaps for the Dirty Dozen. You just might find that when you are in the organic aisle, some organic options are as low-cost as the conventional especially if they are in season. To get you started here are a few tips.
Tips for shopping organic
- Shop the farmer’s market for local, organic foods.
- Join a co-op. You will get the best of in-season fruits and veggies.
- Buy frozen organic fruits and vegetables. It can be hard to get organic fruits and vegetables year-round but frozen is a great way to get those antioxidants and nutrients.
- Check out the bulk deals at your local warehouse club. Amazing deals and the bulk sizes will make sure you have plenty to last your fruit and vegetable cravings.
- Check out the clean 15. If you don’t want to go all organic, these foods have the lowest pesticide residue. Just be sure to choose Non-GMO products. Watch out especially when shopping for corn papayas, yellow squash and zucchini.
Armed With Information
It’s important to know which foods are most contaminated, so you can steer clear of them while grocery shopping. Opting for organic produce is the best choice for the environment, our bodies, and our long-term well-being. However, it’s crucial not to substitute organic produce with unhealthy choices like processed foods simply because organic options don’t fit as well into the budget. That would be counterproductive. It’s common knowledge that processed food poses far more harm than a non-organic strawberry. You’re here because you care about health, so let’s explore which non-organic produce you can buy while making excellent health-conscious decisions.
EWG’s Clean Fifteen List (Can Buy Non-Organic, But Avoid GMO!)
These are foods the EWG found to be fairly low in pesticide residue. However, that doesn’t make them an automatic purchase. These crops may be low in pesticides because they’ve been genetically modified. Corn is a prime example — the vast majority of corn is GMO. According to the FDA, papayas and pink pineapples are a couple of others to watch out for. (11) On the 2023 list, cantaloupe was bumped from the list and carrots were added.
- Sweet corn (non-GMO)
- Pineapple (non-GMO)
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
- Sweet potatoes
According to the EWG report, nearly 65% of these foods had not detectable pesticide residues. Next time you’re at the grocery store, be sure to admire that dark red strawberry because even though it is less vivid, it’s higher in nutrition and has no synthetic pesticides.
- IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Contribution of Organically Grown Crops to Human Health (mdpi.com)
- EWG’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Summary
- EWG’s 2023 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce | Strawberries
- Endocrine disrupting pesticides: Implications for risk assessment – ScienceDirect
- IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Effect of Endocrine Disruptor Pesticides: A Review (mdpi.com)
- Organophosphorus pesticide exposure of urban and suburban preschool children with organic and conventional diets. – PMC (nih.gov)
- Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides – PMC (nih.gov)
- Higher antioxidant and lower cadmium concentrations and lower incidence of pesticide residues in organically grown crops: a systematic literature review and meta-analyses | British Journal of Nutrition | Cambridge Core
- Comparison of conventional and organic tomato yield from a three-year-term experiment in: Acta Alimentaria Volume 41 Issue 4 (2012) (akjournals.com)
- Color, anthocyanin pigment, ascorbic acid and total phenolic compound determination in organic versus conventional strawberries (Fragaria × ananassa Duch, cv Selva) – ScienceDirect
- Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals – PMC (nih.gov)
- What GMO CROPS are grown and sold in the U.S.? (fda.gov)