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)

You decide

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 store.
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 list.
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 other nutrients.

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 vegetables.

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

1 Strawberries Vitamin C Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, oranges, grapefruit,cantaloupe, kiwis, watermelon. 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, blackberries,grapefruit, cantaloupe, kiwis. 5 Peaches Vitamin A (Carotenoids), Nectarines, U.S.cantaloupe, watermelon, Vitamin C tangerines, oranges, red or pink grapefruit. 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 grapefruit,or watermelon. 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.
* Includes 10% or more of the daily value of at least one of the vitamins in the contaminated food.
** 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 the elderly.
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.

                                                      Pesticide Contamination
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.