Those tart, sweet strawberries you’re eating this summer may be putting more than antioxidants in your system. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) declares strawberries the worst culprit for pesticide exposure this year, demoting the worst offender for the last five years, apples, to second place.
The “Dirty Dozen” list, updated annually by the EWG, outlines which produce items are most likely to contain pesticides. The goal of this list is to help people consider which produce may be best to buy organic, according to the organization. Topping the “Dirty Dozen” list are strawberries, apples, nectarines, and peaches. The “Clean Fifteen” lists items the EWG says you can safely eat with minimal concern for pesticides, including avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples.
This year's list of fruits and vegetables found to have the most pesticide residue by the EWG includes:
10. Sweet bell peppers
11. Cherry tomatoes
The use of pesticides is largely cosmetic and designed to make our food prettier, according to Dr. Jennifer A. Lowry, section chief of toxicology at Children’s Mercy in Kansas City and chair to the Council on Environmental Health for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
“If a bug landed on your strawberry it’s not going to taste any different and it actually might be healthier because it wouldn’t have pesticides,” she said.
Pesticides in food are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which sets maximum amounts of pesticides that can legally be in or on food, and these are enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Samples of different foods are tested by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to ensure safety. The majority of American produce falls within the guidelines.
In 2012, approximately 70 percent of fruit and 61 percent of vegetables grown in the U.S. had detectable levels of pesticide residues. However, the vast majority -- 98 percent of fruits and 95 percent of vegetables -- were below legal limits.
While some shoppers are clamoring for organic produce and avoiding pesticides, the health effects of buying organic are still unclear. Prior studies have associated pesticides with poor health outcomes like cancer in children, behavioral problems, and even lower cognitive function. But a review of prior research, published in 2012 in The Annals of Internal Medicine, found a lack of strong evidence that eating organic foods led to better health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) refers pediatricians and parents to the EWG for information when looking to reduce pesticide exposure. However, they explicitly state that it is more important for children to eat a wide variety of produce, conventional or organic. They also encourage washing produce thoroughly.
“If you can afford organic, great, but if you can’t, then you need to get it in any way you can, whether it’s in a can, frozen, or fresh,” Lowry said.
When shopping for your next batch of strawberries, remember that organic varieties may decrease your exposure to pesticides but there is not substantial evidence it will make you healthier.
“If I have the choice between eating the red, shiny [non-organic] strawberry or no strawberry, I’m going to eat the strawberry, and I’m going to tell my patients to eat the strawberry,” Lowry told ABC News.
Dr. Gretchen Winter is completing a combined residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics at Indiana University and will be starting a fellowship in Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at The Cleveland Clinic this year. She is a resident in the ABC News medical unit.