A shopper's guide to pesticides in produce
by Richard Wiles, Kert Davies and Susan Elderkin
n exhaustive review of Federal government data shows
that you can reduce by half your health risks from pesticides in fruits
and vegetables and still eat a diet rich in all the nutrients and benefits
they supply. How? Buy organic produce whenever possible. A second option
is to minimize consumption of items that consistently carry the largest
quantity and most toxic pesticides.
We analyzed the results of Food and Drug Administration
pesticide tests of 15,000 food samples performed in 1992 and 1993. We then
ranked 42 fruits and vegetables according to seven different measures of
pesticide contamination, such as the percent of the crop with detectable
residues and the potency of the average amount of cancer causing pesticides
found each year on that crop. The results of this study were incorporated
into a report, A Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce, to help
consumers minimize their exposure to pesticides in produce and maximize
the nutritional benefits of the fruits and vegetables they eat.
What we found
More than half of the health risks from pesticides in
these 42 crops are concentrated in twelve fruits and vegetables that are
consistently contaminated with the highest levels of the most toxic pesticides.
Avoiding these will reduce pesticide health risks by half, and still provide
a diet rich in fruits and vegetables with all the nutritional and health
benefits they provide. (see table below)
The Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce
does not tell people what to eat. Instead, the Guide provides easily understood
ranking of fruits and vegetables, from highest to lowest toxic contamination.
It also provides a simple selection of nutritious alternative fruits and
vegetables with consistently lower pesticide risks.
For example, the Guide does not recommend that people
never eat strawberries. The Guide does tell consumers, however, that strawberries
have the highest combined score for pesticide contamination and toxicity
of all fruits and vegetables examined, and that there are many equally or
more nutritious alternatives containing fewer pesticides. Similarly the
Guide does not tell people to eat avocados, but it clearly reveals that
avocados have the lowest levels of the fewest number of pesticides of all
42 crops examined.
Eat healthy and reduce risks
Thanks to the bounty of fruits and vegetables in most
American supermarkets, people can radically minimize consumption of the
twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables with no nutritional risk.
All of the vitamins, nutrients and carotenoids provided by the crops on
the list of the twelve most contaminated are found in abundance in other
less contaminated fruits and vegetables available in just about any grocery
Carotenoids include the relatively well-known beta carotene
and a host of other related chemicals. Carotenoids have been linked to reduced
incidence of cancer, reduced rates of macular degeneration and resulting
blindness, and reduced rates of heart disease (CSPI 1995).
Few of the twelve most contaminated foods - with the
notable exception of spinach - provide high levels of vitamins and carotenoids.
A quick review of the list reveals plenty of equally nutritious, and safer,
substitute foods (see table below).
The top twelve
The following is a review of the twelve most contaminated
fruits and vegetables, in decreasing order of contamination.
Strawberries are a good source of vitamin C, but vitamin C is common
in many other fruits and vegetables. Strawberries consistently show high
levels of fungicides. Two of these, captan and iprodione, are classified
by the EPA as probable human carcinogens. Another common fungicide, vinclozolin,
blocks the normal functioning of the male hormone, androgen. Strawberries
are also routinely contaminated with endosulfan, a relative of DDT that
interferes with normal hormone function by imitating the hormone estrogen.
Nutritious substitutes with far lower pesticide residues include blueberries,
raspberries, blackberries and kiwis.
Green bell peppers are a good source of vitamin C, and red bell peppers
add vitamin A and a moderate dose of carotenoids to a meal. Unfortunately,
bell peppers are more heavily contaminated with neurotoxic insecticides
than all other crops analyzed. Good alternatives include broccoli, romaine
lettuce, or carrots among many others.
Spinach is rich in vitamins, iron, folate and carotenoids. It is
also high in DDT, permethrin, chlorthalonil and other cancer causing pesticides.
Other greens such as kale, Swiss chard, mustard greens, collard greens are
good nutritional substitutes, but have a roughly equivalent pesticide contamination
profile. For raw spinach, romaine lettuce is far less contaminated alternative
that is relatively high in carotenoids. For cooked spinach, broccoli or
brussels sprouts are reasonable substitutes that are high in carotenoids,
vitamins A and C, and folate (folic acid).
Cherries are a marginal source of vitamin C, but have little other
nutritional value. Cherries from the United States, in contrast to their
imported counterparts, are heavily contaminated with pesticides. Nutritious
substitutes with far lower pesticide residues include blueberries, raspberries,
blackberries, kiwis, oranges and watermelon.
Peaches provide low amounts of vitamins A and C, and negligible amounts
of carotenoids. They also can contain a heavy dose of the cancer causing
fungicides captan and iprodione, and the neurotoxic pesticide methyl parathion.
Many fruits with lower and less toxic pesticide loads provide the same or
better nutritional benefits. Nectarines, tangerines, cantaloupe, and watermelon
provide more vitamins A and C, and many other fruits - like oranges, grapefruits,
papayas, or kiwis - provide high levels of one of these two vitamins.
Cantaloupe is a highly nutritious fruit, packed with carotenoids
and over 90 percent of the U.S. Recommended Daily Allowance (USRDA) for
vitamins A and C. To avoid cantaloupes with high pesticide residues, hold
off on this fruit during January through April, when imports from Mexico
are at their peak. The rest of the year, enjoy this marvelous melon.
Celery is a marginal source of carotenoids, but provides virtually
no vitamins or minerals. It is a major source of exposure to neurotoxic
pesticides and the probable human carcinogen, chlorthalonil. Celery also
had the highest percentage of samples with detectable residues (81 percent)
of all 42 fruits and vegetables analyzed. Romaine lettuce and carrots are
just two of the many safer salad substitutes.
Apples provide low amounts of vitamin C, but provide very little
else in the way of measurable nutrients or carotenoids. Their pesticide
load, in contrast, is disturbingly high. There were more pesticides detected
on apples (36), and more pesticides found on single samples of apples (7)
than any other fruit or vegetable analyzed. Safer and more nutritious substitutes
would include just about any fruit or vegetable not on the most contaminated
Apricots are a nutritious fruit providing relatively high levels
carotenoids, vitamins A and C and potassium. Unfortunately, they typically
contain high levels of pesticides, including the probable human carcinogen,
captan, and the endocrine (hormone) disrupters endosulfan and carbaryl.
An equally nutritious and safer substitute is cantaloupe from the United
States. A host of other fruits and vegetables provide vitamins C and A and
Green beans provide modest amounts of vitamins C and A and potassium,
but little in the way of carotenoids. Green beans are also a major source
of the cancer causing fungicides chlorthalonil and mancozeb, the neurotoxin
methamidophos, and the endocrine disrupter endosulfan. Safer and more nutritious
alternatives include green peas, broccoli, zucchini, potatoes and many other
Grapes are tasty, but provide few vitamins or carotenoids. Complementing
this slim nutritional profile, grapes from Chile add a load of cancer causing
and endocrine disrupting fungicides. The solution for grape lovers is simple:
eat U.S. grown grapes in season and avoid grapes from January through April,
when grapes from Chile dominate the market.
Cucumbers have few vitamins or carotenoids. They do, however, have
a tendency to absorb dieldrin - a banned, extremely potent carcinogenic
pesticide - from the soil. When eaten, dieldrin persists in human body fat
for decades. Substitutes for cucumbers include just about any vegetable
not found on the most contaminated list.
Foods too good to be true.
Some foods are low in pesticides and pesticide risks
and high in vitamins, minerals, and carotenoids. Sweet potatoes, broccoli,
watermelon, and Brussels sprouts fit this bill, providing lots of vitamins,
carotenoids and minerals, with relatively few pesticides.
To complement the twelve most contaminated crops, we
present the twelve cleanest crops. While no one should eat only these twelve
foods, it is noteworthy that the fruits and vegetables with the lowest contamination
scores also provide a broad array of nutritional and health benefits.
Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit
environmental research organization based in Washington, D.C., and is a
project of the Tides Center, a California Public Benefit Corporation based
in San Francisco. EWG's goal is to provide the public with new, locally
relevant information on environmental issues. EWG specializes in developing
and analyzing large, computerized databases of environmental and economic
information. Much of EWG's research is based on data obtained from federal
and state government agencies through freedom of information laws. Often,
these data have never before been analyzed for their environmental significance.
The EWG website at www.ewg.org contains extensive listings
on the issues of safe food and water including a member-by-member listing
of PAC contributions to federal elected officials from the pesticide industry/agribusiness
political action group: the ironically named "Food Chain Coalition."
The complete report Shopper's Guide to Produce can also be found there.
The 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables
There are many nutritious and healthful alternatives
Good* alternative sources
of most or all of the principal
vitamins and nutrients in the
Rank Food Principal nutrients contaminated food
* Includes 10% or more of the daily value of at least one of the vitamins
in the contaminated food.
1 Strawberries Vitamin C Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries,
oranges, grapefruit,cantaloupe, kiwis,
2 Bell peppers:
(tie) Green peppers Vitamins C Green peas, broccoli, Romaine lettuce
Red peppers Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Romaine lettuce, carrots, broccoli,
Vitamin C Brussels sprouts,asparagus, tomatoes.
2 Spinach Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Romaine
(tie) Vitamin C, Folic Acid lettuce, or asparagus**.
4 Cherries(US) Vitamin C Oranges, blueberries, raspberries,
5 Peaches Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Nectarines, U.S.cantaloupe, watermelon,
Vitamin C tangerines, oranges, red or pink
6 Cantaloupe Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Buy U.S. cantaloupe in season (May-
(Mexican) Vitamin C, Potassium December), or watermelon.
7 Celery Carotenoids, (not a good Carrots, Romaine lettuce, broccoli,
source of vitamins) or radishes.
8 Apples Vitamin C Pears, oranges, grapefruit, cantaloupe,
kiwis, watermelon, nectarines, bananas,
tangerines, or virtually any fruit not
on the list of the most contaminated foods.
9 Apricots Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Nectarines, U.S. cantaloupe, watermelon,
Vitamin C, Potassium tangerines, oranges, red or pink
10 Green beans Not a good source of Green peas, broccoli, cauliflower,
vitamins or carotenoids Brussels sprouts, potatoes, or asparagus.
11 Grapes(Chilean) Vitamin C Buy U.S. grapes in season (May-December).
12 Cucumbers Not a good source of Carrots, Romaine lettuce, broccoli,
vitamins or carotenoids radishes, virtually any vegetable not
on the listof the most contaminated foods.
** Spinach and other leafy greens like kale and collards contain lutein
(a carotenoid) that is not abundant in these substitutes. Lutein may reduce
the risk of macular degeneration, the most common cause of blindness in
Sources: Environmental Working Group, compiled from FDA and EPA data; Center
for Science in the Public Interest. Nutrition Action Health Letter, January-February
1995, October 1994, May 1992, December 1991.
The twelve least contaminated fruits and vegetables
The twelve crops with the least pesticide contamination are a good source**
of the following nutrients.
Food Nutrients Score**
Avocados Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Folic Acid 7
Corn Carotenoids, Folic Acid 14
Onions Not a good source of vitamins or carotenoids 18
Sweet Potatoes Potassium, Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Vitamin C 20
Cauliflower Vitamin C 21
Brussels sprouts Folic Acid, Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Vitamin C 36
Grapes (U.S.) Vitamin C 40
Bananas Potassium, Vitamin C 42
Plums Vitamin C 46
Green onions Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Vitamin C 46
Watermelon Potassium, Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Vitamin C 47
Broccoli Potassium, Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Vitamin C 49
* Includes 10% or more of the daily value of at least one of the vitamins
in the contaminated food.
** 200 = most toxic
Sources: Environmental Working Group, compiled from FDA and EPA data;
Center for Science in the Public Interest, Nutrition Action Health Letter,
January-February 1995, October 1994, May 1992, December 1991.
Contact EWG at: 1718 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20009. Phone: (202) 667-6982; FAX: (202) 232-2592. E-mail infoewg.org.