Dirty Dozen 2021: Here’s the list of foods with the most and least pesticides
Strawberries continue to lead the "Dirty Dozen" list of fruits and veggies that contain the highest levels of pesticides, followed by spinach, a trio of greens -- kale, collard and mustard -- nectarines, apples, and grapes, according to the Environmental Working Group's 2021 Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Nungning20 // Shutterstock
The flavors and aromas of a signature dish can tell colorful and intricate tales about a nation’s spirit, its history, and its culture.
While tasty platters today may be held up as proud testaments to a people’s resilience or stamina, many dishes originated in far darker times. Dishes like Argentina’s asados were introduced when colonizers arrived in the New World from Western Europe, and wild meat at the heart of Malta’s specialities was introduced by Middle Eastern invaders.
Portugal’s specialty bacalhau was created for sailors who would spend years on board explorer ships, and in the Netherlands, the signature cuisine is eaten each year to celebrate the end of a year-long siege by Spanish forces many centuries ago.
If there’s an international trend among national dishes, it’s the ingenious use of lower-cost ingredients made edible, like conch in the Bahamas and Brazil’s organ meat-rich feijoada. Others illustrate just how creative people have been over the years in finding ways to let nothing go to waste.
Many of the cooking methods in use today are ancient, like dishes cooked on sizzling rocks, buried in the ground, or nestled in homemade stone ovens. Archaeologists have found utensils and pots that are evidence people in some regions have been cooking the same dishes for millennia.
The origins of some dishes may come as a surprise. State tourism authorities in Bulgaria concocted its signature dish to spread a fiction about the nation’s eating habits. Perhaps the best known Thai export, the noodle dish pad thai, was the product of a concerted effort to concoct and promote a national dish to be served around the world. Other dishes, as they have spread about the world, have become weapons in ugly wars of xenophobia.
Stacker compiled a list of signature dishes from 50 of the world’s nations, drawing upon travelogues, news reports, food writers and experts, historical accounts, and global data. The findings are mouthwatering. Bon appétit!
You may also like: The cost of bacon the year you were born
Villafane Anibal Rolando // Shutterstock
True to its international reputation for raising top-notch beef cattle, Argentina’s national dish is asados—an array of grilled meats sizzling over an open flame. Typically they would include steaks, ribs, and sausages as well as chorizo and chitterlings from pork. This dish dates to Argentina’s 16th century colonization by Western Europeans who introduced beef cattle to the region.
Eldar Farz // Shutterstock
Nestled between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian sea, Asia’s Azerbaijan specializes in plov, a rice-based pilaf in broth. Made in dozens of variations featuring lamb, saffron, fried apricots, and honey, plov is served at special occasions like weddings. Some experts say plov came from Persia.
MevZup // Shutterstock
Conch is served any number of ways in the Bahamas, but the hallmark version is cracked conch, which is breaded and deep fried. The name comes from the method of tenderizing the chewy shellfish—cracking calls for pounding the meat with a mallet or even a frying pan. For many years, McLean's Town on Grand Bahama Island has hosted an annual Conch Cracking Contest.
Glen Berlin // Shutterstock
The national dish of Bahrain, spicy chicken machboos, can be found across the Middle East, but it is particularly delicious in the Gulf island nation where it is a tradition at Friday family lunches. Machboos mixes Persian and Indian flavors, with an array of spices like ginger, coriander, chilis, mint, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, and nutmeg, and the same cooking water used to cook the meat is used to cook the rice to blend the flavors.
bonchan // Shutterstock
Bhutan has an array of popular dishes, many influenced by neighboring India, Tibet, and China, but one of its best local offerings is ema datshi, or chilies and cheese. It’s a stew with onions, tomatoes, soft cheese from yak or cow’s milk, and chilies that can pack a punch.
Paulo Vilela // Shutterstock
Brazil’s rich, hearty feijoada is made with black beans and cuts of pork, including organ meats. Many believe the dish originated with enslaved people who created stew with the leftovers from slavers, but a recent challenge to that theory says it was brought to Brazil by European settlers. The popular dish does reflect the needs of those who could afford only tougher, less costly cuts of meat that need to be stewed for tenderizing.
Anna_Pustynnikova // Shutterstock
A Bulgarian shopska salad is made up of coarsely chopped tomatoes and cucumbers, green peppers, and onions, topped with grated sirene cheese. Rather than being a longtime national tradition, it was invented in the 1960s by state tourism officials who wanted to showcase Bulgaria’s vegetables, and the ingredients were selected in part to reflect the white, green, and red hues of the Bulgarian flag. It was promoted as a traditional healthy dish, but historians have said Bulgarians did not eat salad before the 20th century and subsisted instead on beans, turnips, onions, and cabbage.
JM Travel Photography // Shutterstock
A thick custard-like curry called fish amok is the notable dish from Southeast Asia’s Cambodia. The sauce is a creamy mix of lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, and coconut milk, and the fish is served in a banana leaf or coconut shell. Amok is the name of the cooking method of steaming food inside banana leaves.
Michael L Brown // Shutterstock
Larisa Blinova // Shutterstock
In Chile, curanto is a festive stew combining vegetables and an impressive array of meat and seafood, including chicken, pork ribs, chorizo sausages, clams, and mussels. It is traditionally cooked in a hole in the ground in stones that have been heated in a bonfire. The pot is covered in wet sacks, creating a pressure cooker.
Luis Echeverri Urrea // Shutterstock
This mouth-watering platter from Colombia’s Andean region, where people are called paisas, features rice, beans, fried pork bellies called chicharron, powdered beef, and chorizo pork sausage. Also included are cheese arepas, which are cakes typically made from cornmeal, avocado, fried ripe plantains, and a fried egg, topped with a seasoning sauce called hogao.
Anton Chernov // Shutterstock
The Comoros’ specialty is langouste à la vanille, which is roast lobster in vanilla sauce. It combines two of the islands’ best-known and abundant products—South African rock lobster and vanilla beans, a significant local crop. The briny seafood mixes with the aromatic vanilla, with additions of white wine, shallots, and butter brought by French colonizers.
Stjepan Tafra // Shutterstock
Croatia’s peka is baked in a unique style, under a bell-shaped lid that is covered with embers. Its ingredients are a variety of meat, like chicken, sausage, or veal, but an especially popular version is made with octopus. Archaeological digs in eastern Croatia have uncovered clay peka pots more than 5,000 years old.
AS Food studio // Shutterstock
Cuba’s signature dish of shredded beef and vegetables is ropa vieja, which means old clothes in Spanish. Some say the name stems from its resemblance to a heap of colorful rags, but a more captivating tale says long ago, a poor man in Spain who could not afford food for his starving family shredded and cooked his own clothes. He prayed over the pot and a miracle took place, transforming the contents into a rich meat stew.
You may also like: Copycat recipes from the most popular fast food restaurants in America
Alp Aksoy // Shutterstock
Like much of the cuisine in Cyprus, koupepia reflects the nation's history of poverty, where fresh vegetables are consumed more than meat. Koupepia are grape leaves, stuffed with rice, spices, and some minced pork or beef, cooked in tomato sauce. They are served warm.
AS Food studio // Shutterstock
The Legislative Assembly of El Salvador declared pupusa the national dish and designated an annual National Pupusas Day. Papusas are thick corn tortillas filled with cheese and sometimes seasoned pork or loroco, a vine flower bud. The indigneous Pipil who once inhabited the Central American region made papusas centuries ago, and the utensils they used to cook them have been found in archaeological excavations. The earliest papusas were filled with squash flowers, greens, and blackberries.
Irina Meliukh // Shutterstock
Estonia’s distinctive dish is verivorst, or blood sausage, served in winter, especially at Christmastime. Barley, onions, spices, and blood are stuffed inside the casing of a pig intestine. The sausages, accompanied by sauerkraut, butter, sour cream, and a berry compote, may be baked or fried, and are typically served as a first course. Like versions of black pudding in England and mustamakkara in Finland, it is a testament to the use of the whole animal, leaving little to waste.
AS Food studio // Shutterstock
In Equatorial Guinea, nestled on the Atlantic coast between Gabon and Cameroon, the trademark dish is succotash, an inexpensive but protein-rich dish of corn and lima beans stewed in tomatoes. It is a staple in the Central African nation, one of the poorest in the world, where three-quarters of the population lives in poverty. Succotash actually originated in the U.S. South, and former enslaved people returning to Africa following the Civil War took the recipe with them.
Jasmine Fledderjohann / Shutterstock
Ethiopia’s hallmark dish is doro wat, a stew of chicken and eggs, flavored with berbere, a spice mixture of coriander, cumin, cardamom, chilies, cloves, fenugreek, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and allspice. Some traditional preparations begin with the slaughter of a chicken that is cut into 12 parts, which some believe is intended to reflect the 12 disciples of Christ.
You may also like: Top 10 foods Americans want to try
ChameleonsEye // Shutterstock
Fitting for the South Pacific nation of more than 300 islands, the national dish of Fiji, called kokoda, is a ceviche of raw white fish like snapper or mahi-mahi, marinated in lime or lemon juice and mixed with diced tomatoes, chilies, onion, and coconut cream. Traditionally it is served in the shell of a coconut or giant clam.
AS Food studio // Shutterstock
The national dish of Gambia, Africa’s tiniest country, is domoda, a peanut stew with a vegetable like pumpkin or sweet potato, tomatoes, and spices. Like many dishes in the West African nation, its vegetarian character reflects a community where most people cannot afford meat. About half the population lives in poverty, according to World Bank data.
NoirChocolate // Shutterstock
Khachapuri in the nation of Georgia is a savory pie made with a salty cheese called sulguni. Each region of the Eurasian nation on the Black Sea coast has its own version, differentiated by ingredients or shape. In one version, the dough is first boiled, then layered with cheese like a dish of lasagna before baking. In another, the dough is leavened, and the final serving is topped with a lump of butter and a raw egg.
hlphoto // Shutterstock
Germany’s sauerbraten is roasted beef, veal, or venison, marinated for several days in vinegar, wine, vegetables, and various spices that tenderize the meat. Historically it was made with horse meat. It dates back thousands of years, when meat was preserved in red wine to be carried to Roman settlements.
Fanfo // Shutterstock
Guyana’s unique pepperpot, especially popular at Christmastime, is stewed beef and oxtail in a sauce of cassava root extracts, peppers, and cinnamon. Its origins lie with indigneous people who used cassareep, an extract of the cassava root that is sweet and syrupy, for its preservative qualities. Making and bottling cassareep is a common source of income for local residents. Traditional versions of pepperpots used goat meat and the feet of pigs and cows.
You may also like: 50 restaurants that offer free food on your birthday
DUSAN ZIDAR // Shutterstock
Goulash was created by cowherds tending cattle for months at a time on Hungary’s wild grasslands and cooked in large cauldrons over open fires. The paprika-laden dish spread in popularity as nationalist Hungarians in the early 19th century began to chafe at rule by the Habsburg dynasty and promoted traditional customs and peasant culture.
Uliana Shevchenko // Shutterstock
In Iceland, the best-known delicacy is hakarl, which is rotten shark. It is the meat of the Greenland shark, which is toxic if not fermented. It is said Hakarl was invented by original settlers about a thousand years ago in Iceland, where little grows in its volcanic soil, who learned to bury the meat for several months to break down its toxins. It has an unpleasant taste of urine because sharks lack a urinary system and release urine through their bloodstream and tissue.
Dina Saeed // Shutterstock
Jordan’s traditional mansaf consists of meat and rice, cooked in a sauce of fermented dried yogurt. It originated with the nomadic Bedouins, who used camel or lamb meat. It is served at weddings, funerals, religious holidays, and other occasions, and traditionally eaten communally, with diners standing around a table, using their right hands as scoops and keeping their left hands in fists behind their backs.
Civil // Shutterstock
Beshbarmak from Kazakhstan, traditionally made with horse or mutton but also beef or lamb, is a dish of boiled meat with noodles. It is traditionally served in a large platter on a Darsakstan, which is a low table, or on a clear cloth spread on the floor. The host serves pieces of meat to guests on the basis of their standing—pelvic and shin bones are reserved for elderly guests of honor while girls get bits of cervical vertebra.
Nungning20 // Shutterstock
The fermented cabbage that is Korea’s trademark, kimchi has an ancient history on the North Pacific peninsula, where residents have long found ways to preserve vegetables through the frigid winters. Its flavors of sweet, sour, spicy, bitter, and salty reflect the Five Elements theory of Korean culture.
You may also like: 15 food fads and their origin stories
from my point of view // Shutterstock
Kibbeh is a spiced mixture of bulgur wheat and lamb, typically baked or fried. In a raw version, kibbeh nayyeh, the bulgur, meat, and pureed onions are blended together with ice water and served with olive oil and flatbread. Kibbeh nayyeh was originally served on Sundays and feast days, the traditional occasions when the Lebanese would slaughter animals and have fresh raw meat.
Alena Veasey // Shutterstock
In Luxembourg, judd mat gaardebounen is widely considered the national food. It is made with smoked pork neck, also called a pork collar, soaked and stewed until tinder and combined with spices, vegetables, potatoes, and broad beans. Diners in Luxembourg restaurants are warned that portions of the dish typically are huge. Experts say judd mat gaardebounen was likely to have been introduced by Spanish troops in the 16th or 17th century.
Fanfo // Shutterstock
In Madagascar, the island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, a one-pot meal called romazava is the signature dish. It features seasoned cubes of pork, beef, and chicken, mixed with heaps of leafy greens. Locally, it is often made with meat from zebu, a breed of humped cows that are believed to be the world’s oldest domesticated cattle, and from paracress, mustard greens, and anamamy, but cooks elsewhere use spinach and arugula.
aina.z // Shutterstock
The Mediterranean nation of Malta is known for stuffat tal-fenek, or rabbit stew. Not native to the Maltese islands, rabbits were introduced by the Phoenicians. In the 18th century, Malta was overseen by a Catholic military order known as the Knights Hospitallier who restricted rabbit-hunting to protect the supply. When tensions with the overseers grew, hunting and eating rabbit became a sign of local resistance. Stuffat tal-fenek is cooked slowly to tenderize the meat, which is mixed with a sauce of tomatoes, garlic, and red wine.
Marcos Castillo // Shutterstock
Mexico’s mole is a distinctive sauce made from chilies, onions, garlic, spices, ground nuts like almonds or pumpkin seeds or sesame seeds, and bittersweet dark chocolate. It might be yellow, red, pink, green, or black. Many versions of mole have more than 30 ingredients. In mole, the peppers contain capsicum that triggers the release of adrenaline. The chocolate has caffeine that releases endorphins that cause a sense of well-being and tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin, which the body uses to regulate the appetite, moods, and sleep.
You may also like: Common U.S. foods that are banned in other countries
Pavlacek_Jan // Shutterstock
Mongolia’s steamed dumplings, called buuz, are filled with seasoned minced mutton or beef and cooked on a stove at the center of a yurt. Buuz is the traditional dish served during White Moon, the Mongolian lunar new year. For the celebration, families prepare thousands of buuz in advance and freeze them.
Gayvoronskaya_Yana // Shutterstock
In the tiny principality of Monaco, the star dish is barbagiuan, a savory pastry traditionally filled with Swiss chard or pumpkin and ricotta. On typical days, barbagiuan is consumed as appetizers or snacks, but it is particularly popular on Monaco’s national day of Nov. 19.
AS Food studio // Shutterstock
Stamppot, also called hutspot, is the hearty signature dish of the Netherlands, laden with mashed potatoes, vegetables, and smoked sausage. Popular versions are made with kale, sauerkraut, onions, carrots, endive, and leeks. The dish is made each Oct. 3 in the city of Leiden to celebrate its resistance to Spain. As legend has it, Leiden endured a one-year siege by Spanish forces in the late 16th century. When the Spanish were driven away, they left behind a stew that starving locals ate and made a lasting symbol of their victory.
Wayne Via // Shutterstock
In Papua New Guinea, mumu is an assortment of root vegetables, pork, chicken, coconut, and pineapple. It’s eaten without utensils. Mumu also refers to the slow-cooking method, in which a makeshift outdoor oven is constructed of stones.
Natalia Mylova // Shutterstock
It is said there are as many ways to cook the dried, salted codfish bacalhau that is Portugal’s national dish as there are days in the year. It is often served with cream and potatoes or formed into croquettes. It dates at least as far back as the 15th century, when Portugal was an explorer country, and the fish could be kept onboard ships for long ocean voyages.
You may also like: Bananas, avocados, and other beloved foods that may go extinct soon
Aleksandr Gogolin // Shutterstock
Amid an array of competing Russian delicacies, a plate of steaming pelmeni takes first place as the nation’s signature dish. Pelmeni are dumplings filled with pork, beef, lamb, fish or sometimes mushrooms, boiled or perhaps fried, and served with sour cream. It’s believed the dumplings were carried by nomadic Mongols traveling across Siberia and the Urals. Not only do they travel well, but pelmeni can be kept frozen for a long time without losing their flavor, perfect for palates in Russia and Siberia where the dumplings often are stored outside in winter.
stockcreations // Shutterstock
Scotland’s haggis stems from an age-old tradition of letting no part of a food animal go to waste. It consists of sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs ground up, sautéed with onions, wrapped in a sheep stomach, and simmered in spiced sheep stock with oatmeal. It once was a particularly important food for shepherds and traveling merchants. While haggis is eaten year-round, it is celebrated on Jan. 25, Burns Night, marking the birthday of Scottish national poet Robert Burns, who wrote “Address to a Haggis” in its honor.
bonchan // Shutterstock
The crusty meatloaf of South Africa, bobotie, arrived with 17th century settlers from Indonesia and was adapted by local residents. Made with lamb or beef, it is flavored with curry, ginger, raisins, dried apricots, and walnuts or almonds. The meatloaf is slathered with milk and egg that bakes into a custard crust.
Raimunda-losantos // Shutterstock
The name of Spain’s national dish of paella—laden with rice, seafood or meat, and flavored with saffron—comes from the Latin word patella meaning dish or platter. It is traditionally cooked over an open fire in a shallow, flat-bottomed pan to take best advantage of quick, hot flames in a land that lacks forests of slow-burning firewood. It is also traditional to eat paella family style, straight from the pan without plates.
ARENA Creative // Shutterstock
Pad thai is an enormously popular signature dish of Thailand found around the world for good reason. It’s a mix of stir-fried rice noodles with fish sauce, seafood, scrambled eggs, tamarind pulp, bean sprouts, and roasted peanuts. It originated in the late 1930s when the government held a competition to decide upon a national dish, about the same time that the nation’s name changed from Siam, and residents were encouraged to eat it as an act of patriotism. In 2002, the government launched a campaign to popularize the dish globally and increase the number of Thai restaurants internationally.
You may also like: Most diverse food cities in the world
Olga Kashubin // Shutterstock
Turkey is known for meats grilled on rotisseries called doner kebabs. As Turks and other immigrants moved to Western Europe, taking with them their favorite dishes, doner kebabs have become a symbol of political and ethnic tensions. In 2017, a committee of the European Parliament tried to ban the phosphate additives used in frozen kebab meat, prompting an uproar that the move was ethnically motivated. Some cities have implemented bans, ostensibly to protect local culinary traditions, and right-wing politicians in France have called for limits on doner kebab vendors.
Abimbola Olayiwola // Shutterstock
Matooke, the national dish of Uganda, is made from green bananas that are peeled, wrapped in their leaves, set in a pot on banana plant stalks and steamed for hours. It is served with a sauce of vegetables or ground nuts. This dish is one of the oldest in the world, and according to legend it was brought to Earth by Kintu, the first man.
Jantira Namwong // Shutterstock
In the South Pacific islands of Vanuatu, formerly the French and English New Hebrides, the national dish of lap lap consists of mashed bananas, breadfruit, and grated taro or yam wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground or earthen oven called an uma. It is often mixed with pork or chicken or even a type of large bat known as flying fox meat, but modern health experts caution strongly against eating bats.
xuanhuongho // Shutterstock
The delicate goi cuon is a type of spring roll, filled with pork, prawns, rice noodles, and vegetables, wrapped in rice paper. It’s dipped in a chili sauce or hoisin sauce made from fermented soybean paste. According to legend, goi cuon, which literally means salad roll, was invented in the 18th century when warring soldiers needed food that was light and easy to transport as they traveled.
wong yu liang // Shutterstock
A thick, hearty stew called saltah, often served as a lunchtime meal, is considered the national dish of Yemen. Its distinctive flavors stem from hilbeh, a condiment made from fenugreek seeds, and zhug, a chili-based condiment with ground cumin, coriander seeds, cardamom seeds, and peppercorns. Made with or without meat, it is served in a stone or metal bowl and eaten with flatbread that serves as a utensil for scooping.
You may also like: Biggest pizza chains in America
Strawberries continue to lead the “Dirty Dozen” list of fruits and veggies that contain the highest levels of pesticides, followed by spinach, a trio of greens — kale, collard and mustard — nectarines, apples, and grapes, according to the Environmental Working Group’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.
Cherries came in seventh on the list of the 46 most contaminated foods, followed by peaches, pears, bell and hot peppers, celery, and tomatoes.
Here’s the full “Dirty Dozen”:
- Kale, collard and mustard greens
- Bell and hot Peppers
Avoiding pesticides is especially critical for babies and children, experts say, because of the damage they can cause to the developing brain. A 2020 study found an increase in IQ loss and intellectual disability in children due to exposure to organophosphates, a common class of pesticides.
The report also offers consumers a list of the “Clean Fifteen” — foods with the least amount of pesticides. Nearly 70% of the “Clean” fruit and vegetable samples had no pesticide residues, making them a safer choice, EWG says.
“Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables,” the EWG report stated. “Only 8 percent of Clean Fifteen fruit and vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.”
“The Clean Fifteen”
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
Avocados and sweet corn were the least contaminated, the report found, with less than 2% of samples showing detectable pesticide residue.
“It’s a really great resource,” said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.
“By nature pesticides are toxic, and doing what you can to reduce exposures is a really good idea to protect your family’s health,” said Houlihan, who was not involved with the report.
“That’s where the ‘Clean Fifteen’ list is particularly useful,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone, who was not involved in the report.
“It can give families reassurance that what they are buying, even if it’s conventionally farmed, may not pose the same level of concerns from pesticides,” Trasande said.
An annual report
The EWG report, issued yearly since 2004, uses US Department of Agriculture test data to rank 46 foods that are the most and least contaminated with pesticide residues. The agency prepares the food as consumers would — washing, peeling or scrubbing — before testing each item. The USDA does not sample all 46 foods each year, so EWG pulls results from the most recent testing period.
A new entry on this year’s list was collard greens and mustard greens, which joined kale in the No. 3 spot. Tests found these vegetables often contained the pesticide DCPA, classified by the EPA as a possible human carcinogen. It was banned by the European Union in 2009.
“The other new big thing on the list is bell and hot peppers, which came in at No.10. They haven’t been tested since 2011-2012, and the USDA found 115 different pesticides on last year’s pepper crops. This is the most, by far, of any of the crops tested,” said EWG toxicologist Thomas Galligan.
Peppers, along with “Dirty Dozen” members oranges, apples, grapes and cherries, are often contaminated with chlorpyrifos, a pesticide originally created as an alternative to DDT.
“Chlorpyrifos should be banned in the US, as it is in Europe. It’s neurotoxic and harms children’s brain development,” Houlihan said.
Chlorpyrifos was slated to be permanently banned in the US in 2016 when EPA safety experts determined it was harming children and farm workers. One study, for example, found lasting structural changes in the brains of pre-teen children who had been highly exposed to chlorpyrifos in utero.
“That decision was overturned under the Trump administration, and chlorpyrifos was allowed to remain in use,” said EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin. “Several states have taken action to ban it, including California, Hawaii, New York and Oregon. So we’re seeing a lot of movement at the state level, due to the federal shortcomings.”
On Jan. 20, the Biden administration put chlorpyrifos on their list of Trump administration actions to review in order to protect the public health.
Pesticides remain, even after peeling
While kid-favorite citrus fruits like clementines and tangerines ranked No. 20 and oranges came in at No. 24 on the overall list, EWG did independent testing on citrus fruits this year, and found two fungicides, imazalil and thiabendazole, were widespread.
“Evidence exists that they have the potential to disrupt the hormone system, and one is suspected of causing cancer,” Houlihan said.
Imazalil, a fungicide used after harvest to keep fruits from molding on the way to market, was found on almost 90% of all the grapefruit, oranges, mandarins and lemons tested early this year by an independent laboratory commissioned by EWG. The USDA found the same fungicide on over 95% of tangerines tested in 2019.
Most startling — the flesh of the fruits was tested after they were peeled.
“I have said repeatedly that that fruits and vegetables with rinds that you don’t eat are less problematic,” Trasande said. “I’m quite frankly surprised and concerned that you can see fungicides penetrate to that level.”
Why would fungicides be needed after fruit is harvested? Partly to satisfy the picky American consumer, Trasande said.
“We live in an age where we like to see beautiful fruits and vegetables,” he said. “And we expect, as consumers, to almost have that perfect, almost photoshopped image in the grocery aisle.
“Some decay doesn’t necessarily mean loss in nutritional value, or even any safety hazard,” Trasande added. “Those fungicides are really there to make the consumer feel better about buying a product.”
CNN reached out to CropLife America, a national trade association that represents the manufacturers, formulators and distributors of pesticides, for comment on this year’s report.
“Scaring Americans away from eating foods that are a safe and vital part of our diet is a disservice to public health,” said CropLife America President and CEO Chris Novak, in a statement.
“The benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh any possible risks from exposure to pesticide residues,” Novak said. “Federal regulators monitor our food for pesticide residues, ensuring produce and other foods are safe to eat. CLA supports the choice of consumers to purchase food grown using any farming method to promote a healthy lifestyle.”
EWG agrees that eating a variety of fruits and vegetables is key to a healthy diet,
“A diet that’s high in fruits and vegetables is a healthy diet, so that’s the most important thing,” said EWG’s Galligan. “Our general guidance is to recommend that consumers choose organic whenever possible, especially for the items on the Dirty Dozen list.
“We do recognize that some people can’t afford or don’t have access to organic food, and that’s why we create our Clean Fifteen list as well so they can choose non-organic foods with the least amount of pesticides,” Galligan said.
Pesticide Data Program reports issued by the US Department of Agriculture typically indicate that when pesticide residues are found on foods, they are nearly always at levels below the human tolerance limits set by the agency.
While most pesticide residues do fall within the USDA government-mandated restrictions, that doesn’t mean they are safe, EWG said.
What to do?
Besides eating exclusively from the “Clean Fifteen” list of the least contaminated foods, experts suggest the following tips.
Eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Serving a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, regardless of which list they’re on, is a key recommendation.
“It’s really important, not only from the perspective of making sure you’re getting a variety of nutrients, but also from the perspective of making sure you’re not concentrating any particular pesticide in your family’s diet,” Houlihan said.
Always wash before eating. “Washing with water is the best way to remove surficial pesticide residues. California routinely tests washed and unwashed produce samples, and finds higher pesticide amounts on unwashed samples, on average,” Houlihan said.
The US Food and Drug Administration recommends against washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash.
“Produce is porous. Soap and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and can make you sick. Also, the safety of the residues of commercial produce washes is not known and their effectiveness has not been tested,” the FDA said.
Eat organic when possible. While organic foods can be exposed to pesticides — and can certainly contain toxic metals found in soil — clinical trials have found people who moved to organic foods saw “rapid and dramatic reductions” in the levels of pesticides in their urine, a common test for pesticide exposure.
“Eating organic reduces your level of pesticides in urine, whether you are high income or low income, studies have been done in both,” Trasande said.
Buy local and in season. “Farm-to-table” — a term that describes food that is locally sourced and purchased directly from a farmer or producer, is not only popular in homes and restaurants, it can cut down on pesticide use, experts say.
Prices drop when fruits and vegetables are in season and plentiful, and targeting in-season items is a good way to stock up on organic foods — especially those on the “Dirty Dozen” list — that might be more expensive at other times.
Freeze or can organic foods. Overfill your shopping cart with organic fruits and vegetables on sale or in season, experts suggest, and then prep and freeze or can them for future use.
Advocate for change. Action by consumers is key to change, experts say.
“It’s no secret that we’ve seen other industries change their manufacturing process in the US due to consumer activism,” Trasande said. “Call attention to the ‘Dirty Dozen’ report and ask companies for accountability, ask for their testing data on fruits and vegetables.”
“I think that can go a long way and get companies to compete with each other on something consumers value — safety for themselves and for their children.”