Sonya Lunder tells it like it is. She sniffs out the Dirty Dozen just as swiftly as she can pick out the Clean 15. As the lead author of the Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce and with a master's degree in public health with a focus on environmental health and toxicology, she eagle-eyes USDA monitoring and testing. And with this data, she helps to compile the annual lists of good guys and bad guys in the produce world.
We caught up with her by phone to talk about this year's just-released information.
How much has changed this year?
The good thing about the list as a shopper is that it's relatively stable from one year to the next. It would be crazy-making if it changed dramatically year to year. A big change this year was with conventionally grown spinach, there was a big jump in the amount (of toxins) found. I'm not sure if spinach had a bad year, but the USDA found a lot of fungicides and insecticides even after it had been washed and was ready to eat. Now that spinach is frequently being sold washed and bagged, fungicides help with rotting and molding. There was also a jump in pesticides in pears.
The report says spinach samples had an average of twice as much pesticide residue by weight than any other crop. So, with spinach and the rest of the Dirty Dozen, who should be most concerned? Who should focus on buying the organic versions?
It really depends on who you are -- how old you are, whether you're elderly or a pregnant woman or a child. Pesticide exposure early in life is more of a concern. I also think about those things that kids eat often. Strawberries are always on my list, conventional strawberries are super pesticide ridden. That is No. 1 on my list. But it's all so personal, it's about how people eat and how much money they have.
It used to be said that things with a thick peel were safer, the fruit or vegetable protected from pesticides, fungicides and such by a peel that could be removed.
That's not so, because you see apples on the list. After they are harvested, they are treated with a fungicide so the peel doesn't break down.
What accounts for the Clean 15? Why are these fruits and vegetables less likely to have pesticide or fungicide residue?
The Clean 15 is a lot of stuff that is naturally resistant to pests. They have their own natural defense, like melons and mangoes with their thick, impenetrable outer layer.
If you can't afford to buy all organic, what can you do to keep your family safe with conventionally grown produce?
We recommend everyone wash all fruits and vegetables, including organic ones, to remove dirt and bacteria. Washing does decrease amounts of pesticides on surfaces, but wash produce just before eating, not when purchased.
The Environmental Working Group has designated two lists for produce: One has the fruits and vegetables most likely to contain pesticide residues (the Dirty Dozen), and one has the fruits and vegetables least likely to contain pesticide residues (the Clean 15). The Dirty Dozen are ranked by levels of pesticides, with 1 being the highest.
The Dirty Dozen
11. Sweet bell peppers
The Clean 15
Frozen sweet peas