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The Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods to Buy Organic


The Dirty Dozen

Agriculture is a global system that involves farmers, insurance companies, transportation systems, wholesale distributors, retail stores and an agrochemical business that alone is valued at more than $200 billion. This ingenious system feeds the world and gives us food choices our grandparents never dreamed of. A hundred years ago no one would have expected to eat fresh apples or tomatoes in winter, or sushi in the middle of a continent thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean. Not only has year-round fresh produce become expected, in many places with a few taps on your smartphone, food will magically be delivered to your door. OK, so maybe it’s not magic. But it sure is amazing.

Eating fresh fruits and vegetables can boost your immune system and reduce your risk for osteoporosis, heart disease, arthritis, diabetes, dementia, cancer and dying early. But eating healthy means more than just buying fresh foods. Choose clean foods is also important. Over 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used in the United State (US) each year and approximately 5.6 billion pounds are used worldwide. In the most recent US FDA report on pesticide use and exposure, scientists tested food samples from 47 different US states and territories and imported food from 98 different countries. Nearly 29% of domestic samples, and 43% of imported samples analyzed contained pesticide residues. And of those testing positive for pesticides, 1.4 % of domestic samples and 11.8 % of sample imported from other countries contained residues above safe levels or for which the FDA has not determined safe levels. More than 210 different pesticides were detected.

The “dirty dozen” are the foods most commonly and highly contaminated with pesticides and chemicals, even after washing and peeling. FDA and USDA research shows high levels of pesticide and chemical contamination in these common foods. Purchasing these as organically produced foods reduces your exposure to toxic and potentially harmful chemicals, some of which could accumulate in the body over time, you’re also buying food that research shows is higher in vitamins and minerals.

1.    Beef, Pork and Poultry

The EPA reports the meat is contaminated with higher levels of pesticides than any plan food. Many chemical pesticides are fat-soluble and accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals. Animal feed that contain animal products compounds the accumulation, which is directly passed to the human consumer. Antibiotics, drugs and hormones are a standard in animal husbandry, all of which accumulate and are passed on to consumers as well. Ocean fish carry a higher risk for heavy metals than pesticides, though many freshwater fish are exposed to high levels of pesticides from contaminated water.

2.    Milk, Cheese and Butter

For reasons similar to those for meat, the fat in dairy products poses a high risk for contamination by pesticides. Animals concentrate pesticides and chemicals in their milk and meat. Growth hormones and antibiotics are also serious concerns and are invariably found in commercial milk, cheese and butter.

3.    Strawberries, Raspberries and Cherries 

Strawberries are the crop that is most heavily dosed with pesticides in America. On average, 300 pounds of pesticides are applied to every acre of strawberries (compared to an average of 25 pounds per acre for other foods). Thirty-six different pesticides are commonly used on strawberries, and 90% of strawberries tested register pesticide contamination above safe levels. Raspberries trump strawberries with the application of 39 chemicals: 58% of the raspberries tested registered positive for contamination. Cherries are almost as dodgy with 25 pesticides and 91% contamination.

4.    Apples and Pears 

With 36 different chemicals detected in FDA testing, half of which are neurotoxins (meaning they cause brain damage), apples are almost as contaminated as strawberries. Ninety-one percent of apples tested positive for pesticide residue. Peeling non-organic apples reduces but does not eliminate the danger of ingesting these chemicals. Pears rank hazardously near apples with 35 pesticides and 94% contamination.

5.    Tomatoes

It’s standard practice for more than 30 pesticides to be sprayed on conventionally grown tomatoes. The thin skin does not stop chemicals from infiltrating the whole tomato, so peeling won’t help you here.

6.    Potatoes 

Potatoes are one of the most popular vegetables, but they also rank among the most contaminated with pesticides and fungicides. Twenty-nine pesticides are commonly used, and 79% of potatoes tested exceed safe levels of multiple pesticides.

7.    Spinach and Other Greens

Consuming green leaefy vegetables is associated lower osteoporosis risk and can help reduce blood pressure and your risk for high blood pressure. But these plants can be highly contaminated with pesticides. The FDA found spinach to be the vegetable most frequently contaminated with the most potent pesticides used on food. Eighty-three percent of the conventionally grown spinach tested was found to contain dangerous levels of at least some of the 36 chemical pesticides commonly used to grow it.

8.    Coffee

Most coffee is grown in countries where there are little to no standards regulating the use of chemicals and pesticides on food. The United States produces and exports millions of tons of pesticides, some of which are so dangerous they are illegal to use on American farmland. Foreign countries import these chemicals to cultivate food, which is sold back to the United States. Coffee is an unfortunate culprit in this vicious cycle of agriculture. Purchasing “Fair Trade” coffee provides insurance that the premium price paid for this treasured beverage supports farms and workers with more equanimity and reward.

9.    Peaches and Nectarines

Forty-five different pesticides are regularly applied to succulent, delicious peaches and nectarines in conventional orchards. The thin skin does not protect the fruit from the dangers of these poisons. Ninety-seven percent of nectarines and 95% of peaches tested for pesticide residue show contamination from multiple chemicals.


Because grapes are a delicate fruit, they are sprayed multiple times during different stages of growth. The thin skin does not offer much protection from the 35 different pesticides used as a standard in conventional vineyards. Imported grapes are even more heavily treated than grapes grown in the United States. Several of the most poisonous pesticides banned in the United States are still used on grapes grown abroad. Eight-six percent of grapes test positive for pesticide contamination; samples from Chile showed the highest concentration of the most poisonous chemicals.


Celery has many health benefits, cut conventionally grown celery is subjected to at least 29 different chemicals, which cannot be washed off because celery does not have any protective skin. Ninety-four percent of celery tested was found to have pesticide residues in violation of safe levels.

12.Red and Green Bell Peppers

Bell Peppers are one of the most heavily sprayed foods, with standard use of 39 pesticides. Sixty-eight percent of bell peppers tested had high levels of chemical pesticide residues. The thin skin of peppers does not offer much protection from spraying and is often waxed with harmful substances.

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Alavanja MCR. Pesticides Use and Exposure Extensive Worldwide. Reviews on environmental health. 2009;24(4):303-309. [article]

Pesticide Residue Monitoring Program Fiscal Year 2014 Pesticide Report. US Food and Drug Administration. [report]

Worthington V. Nutritional quality of organic versus conventional fruits, vegetables and grains. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. 2001;7(2):161-173. [article]

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