We’ve got some bad news for you kale aficionados: This year, the trendy green is joining the infamous “Dirty Dozen” list, which features the 12 fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticide residues. Not only does kale rank third in the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) annual report, but it actually has higher pesticide residues than nearly all other produce found on supermarket shelves. Yikes!
Every year since 2004, the EWG—a nonprofit, nonpartisan environmental organization—analyzes the Department of Agriculture’s test data (and runs their own tests too) to identify the fruits and veggies with the most pesticide residues on them. The group then ranks pesticide contamination for conventionally grown (non-organic) fruits and vegetables in its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Pesticides are chemicals that kill unwanted mold, insects, and rodents and help produce grow, but they can be harmful to humans. “The main route of pesticide exposure for most Americans who do not live or work on or near farms is through their diet,” says Carla Burns, an EWG research analyst. Eating fruits and vegetables that are free of pesticides is especially important for pregnant women and children, she adds.
In the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) most recent round of tests, more than 92% of conventionally grown kale samples had at least two or more types of pesticide residue. Some samples contained residue from as many as 18 different pesticides. Dacthal (DCPA)—a pesticide that has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency since 1995 as a possible human carcinogen—was the most frequently detected pesticide on nearly 60% of kale samples.
Wondering how the EWG tests the produce? Fruits and veggies are peeled and washed much like consumers would before eating them, says Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist for the EWG. This means that rinsing a handful of strawberries or grapes in a colander in the sink is probably not getting rid of all the pesticide residue on them. Still, washing them is an important step: Research from the California Department of Pesticide Regulation found that if you don’t wash or peel your produce at all, the level of contamination is higher.
The last time kale was in the Dirty Dozen was 2009, when it ranked eighth. Why is the popular green cropping up on the list a decade later? There are 47 fruits and vegetables on the EWG’s list, and USDA tests them every five years (and sometimes every two), Temkin tells Health. In the case of kale, it was 10 years until they tested the leafy green again.
But before you vow to never eat another kale salad again, pump the breaks. You shouldn’t avoid the fruits and vegetables on the list simply because they’re there, Temkin says—and fresh produce is an essential part of a healthy diet. The best thing you can do to lessen your exposure and consumption of pesticides is buy organic, Temkin says.
If you’re shopping at your local grocery store for fresh produce and organic versions of the Dirty Dozen are either not available or not affordable, should you opt for non-organic fruits and vegetables instead, or postpone your produce haul altogether? Luckily, the EWG has also released the Clean 15, a list of the top 15 fruits and veggies with the least pesticide contamination—this year, that includes avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, onions, and eggplants—based off more than 40,900 samples tested. If organic options for the Dirty Dozen aren’t an option, choose conventional produce from the Clean 15 list instead, says Nneka Leiba, director of EWG’s Healthy Living Science Program.
Below, the full DIrty Dozen list for 2019. The EWG suggests going the organic route when shopping for these fruits and veggies.
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