Pesticides on Fruits and Vegetable: Organic or Conventional?

Over the past two decades, retail sales of organic fresh fruits and vegetables have steadily trended upward. According to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, retail sales of organic fresh produce were estimated at $19.2 billion and accounted for 40% of organic food sales in 2021. One big reason folks turn to organic produce is they feel it is “safer” compared to conventional produce — especially when it comes to pesticide residue.

The consumer advocacy group Environmental Working Group puts out an annual list of the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen. These lists, according to the EWG, are the fruits and vegetables with the most pesticide residue (aka Dirty Dozen) and those with the least (aka Clean Fifteen). For 2023, strawberries topped the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list.

[READ: Ways to Keep Veggies Fresh Longer.]

Conventional vs. Organic

But is the EWG doing a disservice to individuals who can’t afford organic?

What about farmers who grow both conventional and organic produce? Does this mean some of their crop is “dirty,” while the other part is “clean”? There are certainly many fear-induced questions that arise from a misunderstanding of how pesticides are regulated in this country.

To better understand the use of pesticides on fruits and vegetables, here is a deep dive into understanding how pesticides are regulated, the use of pesticides in conventional and organic produce and why you should feel good about choosing any type of produce you choose to buy — organic or conventional.

How Pesticide Use Is Regulated

“Pesticides in the U.S. are regulated primarily by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Before a pesticide can be registered for use on food crops, the EPA, using very strict criteria, must conclude that the pesticide poses a “reasonable certainty of no harm” to consumers. This determination considers the potential increased susceptibility of infants and children as well as the combination of exposure from food, drinking water, and residential settings,” explains Carl K. Winter, professor of Cooperative Extension, emeritus in the Department of Food Science and Toxicology at the University of California, Davis.

The term pesticide is defined by the EPA as “any substance or mixture of substances intended for preventing, destroying, repelling or mitigating any pest.” A pesticide can be of organic nature too.

According to Winter, “pesticides are allowed for use in organic production provided that they are approved by the National Organic Standards Board.” These organic pesticides must follow the same toxicological principles as do pesticides used in conventional food production. “Pesticide residues found in organic produce, similar to those found in conventional produce, are typically found at levels far below those of health concern,” he explains.

[See: Highest Protein Fruits.]

Should You Be Worried About Pesticide Residue?

Joan Salge Blake, a nutrition professor at Boston University and host of the nutrition and health podcast, SpotOn! says “Every year, I anticipate, with dread, the Environmental Working Group’s media blast of this list that publicizes major disinformation about the dangers of pesticide residues on Mother Nature’s Finest.”

Salge Blake continues by explaining that each year, the EPA and the USDA’s Pesticide Data Program releases its report about pesticide residues. “The latest report states that more than 99% of produce products sampled through this program have pesticide residues levels below what the EPA has established as safe. While many fruits and vegetable may have some residues, the levels are so low that the numerous health benefits of consuming produce far outweigh the danger of consuming them.”

If you’re concerned about residue from any type of produce (conventional or organic), Salge Blake recommends washing it under running tap water before eating as this will not only help reduce some of the possible lingering residues but also remove dirt and bacteria that may be present.

At this point, you may have the same question as I did: If the FDA reports that 99% of the produce is below the levels set by the EPA, where does the Dirty Dozen list get its information? According to the EWG’s website, its Shopper’s Guide is based on lab tests done by the USDA’s Pesticide Testing Program and the FDA. However, the EWG’s report states that “The Shopper’s Guide does not incorporate risk assessment into the calculations. All pesticides are weighted equally, and we do not factor in the levels deemed acceptable by the EPA.”

Winter explains that such methodology ignores the three most important components used to establish health risks:

— The toxicity of the pesticides.

— The amounts of the pesticides found on foods.

— The amount of the foods eaten by consumers.

“When such components are considered, our typical exposure to pesticide residues is often at levels of one million times lower than doses given on a daily basis to laboratory animals throughout their lifetimes that do not produce any health effects in the animals.”

[Read: Anti-Cancer Foods.]

Should You Swap Organic for Conventional Produce?

The recommendation from the consumer advocacy group is to swap organic produce for those on the Dirty Dozen list. However, a peer-reviewed published studyin the Journal of Toxicology found that the EWG’s suggested substitutions of organic forms of produce for their conventional counterparts did not result in any significant decrease in risk. The residues on the conventional produce are so minute, if present at all, that no significant difference was found.

If worker safety is part of your concern, Winter notes that “environmental and worker safety impacts from pesticides do represent areas of concern and are subject to EPA review when determining if pesticides will be allowed for specific uses.” In addition, in terms of worker safety, EPA’s risk management process results in labeling that provides directions for use, storage and disposal that, when followed, protects workers, the public and the environment.

Thinking About Your Food Dollars

A peer-reviewed study published in Nutrition Today also found that EWGs messaging may be negatively influencing low-income shoppers. Researchers surveyed lower-income shoppers to learn about what influences their food shopping habits. They found that misleading messaging, which inaccurately describes certain fruits and vegetables as having “higher” pesticide residues, results in lower-income shoppers reporting that they would be less likely to purchase any fruits and vegetables — organic or conventional. This means that these individuals are missing out of the plethora of health benefits that fruits and vegetables provide due to unwarranted pesticide fears.

Be Proud of Whatever You Buy

So whether you choose organic, conventional, ugly or local produce, you’re far better off than eating none at all.

“The EWG report is an example of the enormous amount of nutrition and health misinformation and disinformation that is being served to the public,” says Salge Blake. “This can be harmful as it could scare consumers from consuming fruits and veggies that science-based research has shown over and over again to be a necessary part of a healthy diet.”

All fruits and veggies are full of fiber and phytochemicals, which can help fight not only heart disease and obesity, but also diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke and some cancers. All forms of produce count and should be eaten, including fresh, frozen and canned — organic or conventional. Be proud of whatever you choose; just eat more fruits and veggies.

Winter agrees and says that consumers should feel confident that the produce they purchase, whether organic or conventional, is safe to eat.

While consumers may be exposed to some pesticide residues when they eat produce, the levels of residue are much too low to be of any health concern. Plus, the health benefits of eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and grains far outweigh the tiny risks posed by pesticide residues in such foods.

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