The Dirty Dozen Exposed


One of the reasons I start One Hangry Millennial was to simplify the wellness space. There’s a mass of pseudoscience and misrepresented health information being circulated, and it can be difficult to find, review, and confirm the authenticity of the source.

In this blog, I wanted to discuss the “Dirty Dozen” and the  “Clean Fifteen”. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes the Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce annually. This group has been widely heralded by experts and has even shepherded pesticide policy at the national level. The big takeaways from the report are always the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. The Dirty Dozen includes fruits and vegetables that contained higher total pesticide concentrations whereas the Clean Fifteen contained lower total concentrations.

These lists serve to educate the general public on how to eat a diet that has lower levels of pesticides. These lists also draw attention to best farming practices and the socioeconomic inequities of health visible at a national level.

Why a low-pesticide diet?

  • Higher consumption of pesticides is linked to greater detection of pesticides and their breakdown products in the urine. (1).

  • Consumption of organic foods is negatively associated with Metabolic Syndrome (2).

  • The American Academy of Pediatrics has previously issued reports about the “unique susceptibilities” children have to pesticides and notes that diet “may be the most influential source” (3).

What methodology is used to obtain these measurements?

The EWA uses the publicly available USDA Pesticide Data Program (PDP) to create their lists as well as information from the FDA. The EWA ranks 47 popular fruits and vegetables based on measurements obtained by these groups. The fruits and vegetables are washed, peeled, and prepared; therefore, it is safe to assume unwashed and/or unpeeled produce would have higher levels of pesticides. The EWA compares foods based on percent of samples with one or more detectable pesticides, average amount of pesticides found, as well as the number of different pesticides found.

It is important to note that the EWA does not break down their data into specific pesticides and associated risks. So, the lists do not tell you about the risk of a particular fruit or vegetable, just the total pesticide load.

How to use the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen:

The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen can be used to best allocate your resources (i.e., MONEY) towards the fruits and veggies with the lowest pesticides. For example, head to the organic aisle for your greens (spinach, kale, etc.) but save that extra $0.50 you would spend on organic avocados. We all know guac is already extra!

I’ve created a simple list you can download to help you identify what items to buy organic and what items to buy conventional with extra room for you to add in your personal preferences.

Peach Header Packing List.png

Pitfalls of using this list, exclusively:

  • More research and publications on the long-term health implications of dietary pesticides are necessary.

  • Dirty is a pretty incriminatory and disparaging word, and it can lead consumers to believe that conventional (non-organic) produce in this category should be avoided in totality. In actuality, the health benefits of eating produce outweigh the negative impacts of consuming pesticides. If the price point of buying organic is not within your reach, you should still buy conventional products and consume a well-rounded diet. Do not give up on kale just because it’s “dirty”...triple-wash that bad boy and enjoy its nutritional benefits.

  • The list is NOT peer-reviewed. This always calls the validity of the “study” into question.

  • Organic is a production term that does not speak to the nutritional quality of produce. In fact, organic farming still allows for the use of pesticides, as long as the synthetic pesticide meets “USDA standards”.

    • Typically the pesticides allowed in organic farming are EPA-review exempt due to low toxicity.

    • The Alliance for Food and Farming has a calculator you can use to quantify the amount of pesticides that you and your family can safely consume.

    • It should be noted that the EWA believes the current pesticide standards are insufficient.

Closing points:

I hope this post helped to empower you as a consumer.

The biggest takeaway of this post is regardless of whether you’re buying conventional or organic, you should be eating more fruits and vegetables.

If you are comfortable with the EPA’s pesticide standards and want to save some money, buy all conventional produce. If you can afford to buy all of your products organic and are passionate about ethical, sustainable, and organic farming, head straight to the organic section of the store. If you, like me, are on a budget then the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean Fifteen” can help balance out your mixed shopping list to get the most bang (i.e., least pesticides) for your buck.


  1. C.L. Curl et al., Estimating Pesticide Exposure from Dietary Intake and Organic Food Choices: The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Environmental Health Perspectives, 2015.

  2. Baudry, J., Lelong, H., Adriouch, S. et al. Eur J Nutr (2018) 57: 2477.

  3. Pesticide Exposure in Children. COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH. Pediatrics. Dec 2012, 130 (6) e1757-e1763.

Catherine SmithComment