While it may still be considered a super food, kale took third place on this year’s “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue. Once again, strawberries and spinach took first and second, as they did on last year’s list.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization focused on human health and the environment, has produced the report annually since 2004.
This year, more than 92% of kale samples tested had two or more pesticide residues detected, and a single sample could have up to 18 different residues, EWG found. The most frequently detected pesticide, found on about 60% of the kale samples, was Dacthal, also called DCPA. It has been classified by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a possible human carcinogen, based on animal studies.
The EWG researchers analyzed test data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the report, and kale had not been tested in more than 10 years, says Nneka Leiba, MPH, director of healthy living science at EWG and a co-author of the report. “The percent of [kale] samples with residue increased from 76% to 98%,” she says, citing the difference between the testing in 2007 and in 2017, the data used for this year’s report. “The average number of residues on a single sample increased from two to more than five.”
Leiba stresses that the report should not discourage people from eating fruits and vegetables, although she does suggest people choose organic produce when possible as even washing produce does not remove all pesticides.
Other experts who viewed the report say the amount of pesticides found is not high enough to be a health hazard.
2019’s Dirty Dozen
After adding kale, this year’s list repeats all the entries on last year’s list except for sweet bell peppers, in 12th place last year. This year’s Dirty Dozen:
Dirty Dozen Plus
Clean 15 List for 2019
- Avocados (less than 1% of samples showed detectable levels of pesticides)
- Sweet corn (less than 1% of samples showed detectable levels)
- Frozen sweet peas
- Honeydew melons
Study Methods, Health Concerns
“As a registered dietitian, the concept of ‘dirty’ and ‘clean’ foods is concerning, unless food is truly dirty,” says Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian and director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis.
“If you are more comfortable and can afford to, buy organic, but know it can have organic pesticide residue,” Diekman says.
While the levels on individual produce may seem low, ”the overall burden is high,” Leiba says, adding that people are also eating other foods with chemicals and pesticides. “We are talking about a synergistic effect.”
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March 20, 2019
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“Studies have shown that eating fruits and vegetables free of pesticides benefits health, and this is especially important for pregnant women and children,” said Carla Burns, of the EWG.
“It’s not healthy for people to be scared of their food,” said Asa Bradman, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “There are a few articles that hint at the benefits of organic versus conventional, but at this point, the information is only limited and the benefits of eating a healthy diet and a good selection of fruit and vegetables means I would not want to discourage consumption of those foods by people.”
“My personal view is that the risk to consumers is low compared to the potential risk to agricultural workers,” said Bradman.
Alex Chensheng, a professor of environmental exposure at Harvard, blames a strong farming lobby for blocking reform. It is very tough to make any significant policy progress on pesticides, he said, “If we can’t eliminate the conflict of interest, no true progress will be made.”
“We have nominal programs to support farmers converting to organic and that should be expanded, and we should be prioritizing research on organic farming,” said Kendra Klein, a scientific advisor for environmental organization Friends of the Earth. She doesn’t suggest all farmers need to convert to organic, but rather that the U.S. should look to move away from a pesticide-intensive system. ″We need to change the system so none of us is exposed,” she said.