The 12 most contaminated vegetables and fruits on the market

Every year a list is published in the US that reveals which are the most contaminated fruits and vegetables, and which are the cleanest.

 Strawberries (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Vegetables and fruits are recommended for a healthy diet, but sometimes it’s a thorn in our side. Strawberries and spinach, two of the healthiest, continue to top the annual "Dirty 12" list of fruits and vegetables containing the highest levels of pesticides, followed by three greens: kale, chard and mustard, nectarines, apples, grapes and hot peppers according to the 2022 Buyers Guide of the Environmental Working Group on U.S. Pesticides.

Cherries came in eighth place this year on the list of the 12 most contaminated foods, with peaches, pears, celery and tomatoes topping the list.

But don’t stop eating these foods, which are full of vitamins, minerals, fiber and antioxidants needed to fight chronic diseases. "If the things you love to eat are on the 'Dirty Dozen' list, we recommend buying organic varieties if you can," Alexis Tamkin, a toxicologist at the EWG with expertise in toxic chemicals and pesticides, told CNN.  She added that several studies have examined what happens when people switch to a completely organic diet: It seems that concentrations and measurements of pesticides go down very quickly.

Nearly 70% of the fruits and vegetables on the list had no detectable pesticide residues, while just under 5% had residues of two or more pesticides, the report said. Avocados had the lowest levels of pesticides among the 46 foods tested, followed by sweet corn, pineapple, onions and papaya.

Multiple pesticides

The EWG report, which has been published annually since 2004, uses test data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rank the 46 most contaminated foods in pesticide residues. Ministry of Agriculture workers prepare the food as consumers would: rinsing, peeling or scrubbing before inspecting each item.

Numerous samples of the 46 fruits and vegetables included in the report were found to be positive for multiple pesticides, including insecticides and fungicides. "More than 90% of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes have been found to be positive for residues of two or more pesticides," the report said.

The highest level of multiple pesticides - 103 - was found in samples of the heart-healthy kale, spinach and mustard trio, followed by 101 different pesticides on pepper and hot pepper. In general, "spinach samples had 1.8 times more pesticide residue by weight than any other crop tested," the report said.

The “dirty dozen” for 2022

Produce which this year which was tested and found to have the highest amount of pesticides:

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale, cabbage, chard/mustard greens
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Red pepper and hot peppers
  8. Cherries
  9. Peaches
  10. Pears
  11. Celery
  12. Tomatoes

Fifteen fruits and vegetables with the lowest amount of contamination:

  1. Avocado
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onion
  5. Papaya
  6. Garden peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Melon w/coarse skin
  9. Kiwi
  10. Cabbage
  11. Mushrooms
  12. Spanish melon
  13. Mango
  14. Watermelon
  15. Sweet potato

How can you reduce your exposure to pesticides?

Aside from organic eating, there are a number of actions consumers can take to reduce exposure to pesticides and many other toxins such as heavy metals found in, but not limited to, agricultural produce.

  • Rinse well. Don’t use soap, detergents or rinsing products - water is the best choice. "Soap and household cleaners can be absorbed into fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and cause nausea," says the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)..
  • Select Local. Buying food purchased directly from local farmers can reduce the risk of exposure to pesticides, experts say 
  • Buy in season. Prices go down when fruits and vegetables are in season and plentiful, like the price of strawberries last winter. This is a good time to purchase organic foods in bulk, then freeze them for future use.