EWG’s 2021 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce™

Over 90 Percent of Non-Organic Citrus Fruits Contain Fungicides Linked to Cancer and Hormone Disruption

By EWG Science Team

MARCH 17, 2021

Nearly 70 percent of the non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful chemical pesticides, according to EWG’s analysis of the latest test data from the federal Department of Agriculture. This year, along with the items on our Dirty Dozen™ and Clean Fifteen™ lists, EWG is highlighting harmful fungicides detected on citrus fruits tested by USDA, as well as in tests we commissioned.

Imazalil, a fungicide that can change hormone levels and is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a likely human carcinogen, was detected on nearly 90 percent of citrus samples tested by EWG in 2020, and over 95 percent of tangerine samples tested by the USDA in 2019.

Kale remains in the third spot on our Dirty Dozen list, now joined by collard and mustard greens as being among the produce items with the highest pesticide load. After being tested for the first time since 2012 and 2011, respectively, bell peppers and hot peppers are also included in this year’s list in the 10th spot.

In USDA’s most recent tests, the pesticide most frequently detected on collard and mustard greens – as is also the case with kale – is DCPA, sold under the brand name Dacthal. The EPA classifies DCPA as a possible human carcinogen, and in 2009 the European Union banned it. Other problematic pesticides on greens include the potentially neurotoxic neonicotinoids and pyrethroids.

As they have in past years, peppers still contain concerning levels of acephate and chlorpyrifos – organophosphate insecticides that can harm children’s developing brains and are banned from use on some crops in the U.S. and entirely in the EU. In 2017, under the Trump administration, the EPA rejected a proposed chlorpyrifos ban, allowing it to remain on the market and in foods.

Whether organic or conventionally grown, fruits and vegetables are critical components of a healthy diet. However, many crops contain potentially harmful pesticides, even after washing, peeling or scrubbing, which the USDA does before testing each item. Since pesticide contamination varies by crop, it is important to understand which items are most or least contaminated. Additionally, fresh items that are most contaminated, such as spinach, strawberries and other Dirty Dozen fruits and vegetables, still have high levels of pesticides in their frozen forms.

Also important to note is that the USDA does not test for all pesticides used in crop production. High levels of glyphosate can be found in several grains and beans, such as oats and chickpeas, due to its increasing use as a pre-harvest drying agent. Notably, the USDA collected hundreds of samples of oats and chickpeas in 2019, and glyphosate, or Roundup – the most heavily used pesticide in the U.S. – is known to be used on these crops. But the USDA has not analyzed them for glyphosate.

EWG's Dirty Dozen for 2021

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

Of the 46 items included in our analysis, these Dirty Dozen foods were contaminated with more pesticides than other crops, according to our analysis of USDA data.1 (The rankings are based not only on the percentage of samples with pesticides but also on the number and amount of pesticides on all samples and on individual samples. See Methodology.) Key findings:

  • More than 90 percent of samples of strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines, and leafy greens tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides.
  • A single sample of kale, collard and mustard greens had up to 20 different pesticides.
  • On average, spinach samples had 1.8 times as much pesticide residue by weight as any other crop tested.
  • Hot peppers and bell peppers had the most pesticides detected, 115 pesticides in total and 21 more pesticides than the crops with the second highest amount – kale, collard and mustard greens.

EWG's Clean Fifteen for 2021

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Broccoli
  10. Cabbage
  11. Kiwi
  12. Cauliflower
  13. Mushrooms
  14. Honeydew melon
  15. Cantaloupes

These 15 items had the lowest amounts of pesticide residues, according to EWG’s analysis of the most recent USDA data.1 Key findings:

  • Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest. Fewer than 2 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • The first seven Clean Fifteen crops tested positive for three or fewer pesticides on a single sample.
  • Almost 70 percent of Clean Fifteen fruit and vegetable samples had no pesticide residues.
  • Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 8 percent of Clean Fifteen fruit and vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.
See the full list of fruits and vegetables.

Health Benefits of Reducing Dietary Pesticide Exposure

Organic standards prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, among other things. Eating organic food reduces pesticide exposure and is linked to a variety of health benefits, according to an article published this year in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients.2 In four separate clinical trials, people who switched from conventionally grown to organic foods saw a rapid and dramatic reduction in their urinary pesticide concentrations, a marker of pesticide exposure. Additional studies have linked higher consumption of organic foods to lower urinary pesticide levels, improved fertility and birth outcomes, reduced incidence of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lower BMI and reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.4

Researchers from Harvard University used USDA test data and methods similar to ours to classify produce as having high or low pesticides. Remarkably, their lists of high and low pesticide crops largely overlap with our Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen.

Fertility studies' classification of pesticide residues
High pesticide residue score Apples, apple sauces, blueberries, grapes, green beans, leafy greens, pears, peaches, potatoes, plums, spinach, strawberries, raisins, sweet peppers, tomatoes, winter squash
Low to moderate pesticide residue score Apple juice, avocados, bananas, beans, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, cauliflower, celery, corn, eggplant, grapefruit, lentils, lettuce, onions, oranges, orange juice, peas, prunes, summer squash, sweet potatoes, tofu, tomato sauces, zucchini

The Harvard researchers also found that people who ate greater quantities of crops high in pesticides had higher levels of urinary pesticides and lower fertility.5,6 Alternatively, people who ate a pro-fertility diet, which included the low pesticide crops, among other foods and nutrients, like whole grains and folic acid, were more likely to have a successful pregnancy.7

From these studies, it is unclear whether the positive effects associated with organic foods are directly and exclusively caused by lower pesticide exposures.

People who eat higher amounts of organic produce tend to be more health-conscious in general, making it difficult to determine the exact cause of an observed health outcome. Clinical trials – in which participants are monitored before and after switching to an organic diet – may be better able to identify cause-and-effect links between diet and outcomes.

But so far, the clinical trials for organic foods have been short-term studies, spanning days or months, although health benefits from eating organic foods may take much longer to become evident. Until long-term clinical trials are completed, the published observational studies provide the best evidence in support of eating organic.

In 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued an important report that said children have “unique susceptibilities to [pesticide residues’] potential toxicity.” The academy cited research that linked pesticide exposures in early life to pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function and behavioral problems. It advised its members to urge parents to consult “reliable resources that provide information on the relative pesticide content of various fruits and vegetables.” A key resource it cited was EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.8

An EWG investigation published last year found that for most pesticides, the EPA does not apply additional restrictions to safeguard children’s health. The landmark 1996 Food Quality Protection Act required the EPA to protect children’s health by applying an extra margin of safety to legal limits for pesticides in food. Yet, as our investigation found, this tenfold margin of safety was not included in the EPA’s allowable limits for almost 90 percent of the most common pesticides.

Genetically Engineered Crops

Genetically engineered crops, or GMOs, are most commonly found in processed foods rather than in fresh produce. Corn syrup and corn oil, produced from predominantly GMO starchy field corn, are commonly found in processed foods. However, you may find genetically modified zucchini, yellow squash, sweet corn, papaya and apples in U.S. markets, though only papayas are predominantly GMO.

Under a law passed in 2016, beginning in 2022, some GMO food products in the U.S. must be labeled. However, based on the final rule released in 2018, these labels may be difficult to interpret, with confusing terms like “bioengineered.” Until the law takes effect, consumers who want to avoid GMOs may choose organic zucchini, yellow squash, sweet corn, papaya, apples and potatoes. Processed goods that are certified organic or bear Non-GMO Project Verified labels can also be trusted to be GMO-free.

EWG provides several resources – including EWG’s Shopper’s Guide To Avoiding GMO Food, the Food Scores database and EWG’s Healthy Living app – to help consumers identify foods likely to contain genetically engineered ingredients.

Pesticide Regulations

The federal government’s role in protecting our health, farm workers and the environment from harmful pesticides is in urgent need of reform. In the U.S., pesticide regulation, monitoring and enforcement is scattered across multiple federal and state agencies. In 1991 the USDA initiated the Pesticide Data Program and began testing commodities annually for pesticide residues, but we remain concerned about pesticide regulation and oversight in the U.S.

The USDA states that a goal of its tests is to provide data on pesticide residues in food, with a focus on those most likely eaten by infants and children. Although no commodities are tested annually, some – including baby food, last tested in 2013, and baby formula, last tested in 2014 – are tested particularly infrequently. Additionally, some pesticides are not tested, such as glyphosate, despite being the most widely used pesticide in the U.S.

This is troubling, because tests commissioned by EWG found almost three-fourths of samples of popular oat-based foods, including many popular with children, had pesticide residue levels higher than what EWG scientists consider protective of children’s health.

The chief responsibility of deciding which pesticides are approved for use in the U.S., including deciding what conditions are placed on their approval and setting the pesticide residue levels on foods and crops, falls to the EPA. But primary enforcement authority for pesticide use on farms is left to states, and the responsibility of testing foods to determine dietary exposures to pesticides is divided between the USDA and the Food and Drug Administration. However, neither the USDA nor the FDA regularly tests all commodities for pesticide residues, nor do the programs test for all pesticides commonly used in agriculture.

The primary pesticide law – the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, or FIFRA – is far less health protective than the laws that protect the safety of our air, food, water and environment.

The pesticide registration process requires companies to submit safety data, proposed uses and product labels for approval by the EPA. However, the EPA does not conduct its own independent testing of pesticides. Neither does its review fully capture the risks posed by pesticides, because of limitations in available data and failures in risk assessments, such as excluding synergistic effects. This is concerning, because scientists have found that the combination of two or more pesticides can be more potent than the use of the pesticides individually.

Given these many inadequacies, it’s no wonder that many of the most toxic pesticides banned by other countries are still allowed for use in the U.S. That is why EWG has called on President Biden to ban or restrict some of the most harmful pesticides still used today.

Methodology

The Shopper’s Guide ranks pesticide contamination on 46 popular fruits and vegetables based on an analysis of more than 46,075 samples taken by the USDA and the FDA. Each year the USDA selects a subset of these fruits and vegetables to test, rather than testing each crop each year.

To create this guide, EWG uses data from the most recent one-to-two-year sampling period for each food. Since the USDA doesn’t test honeydew melon, EWG uses the FDA’s pesticide monitoring data for this crop.

Food Year Source
Apples 2015-2016 USDA PDP
Asparagus 2017-2019 USDA PDP
Avocados 2012 USDA PDP
Bananas 2019 USDA PDP
Blueberries 2014 USDA PDP
Broccoli 2014 USDA PDP
Cabbage 2017-2019 USDA PDP
Cantaloupe 2011-2012, 2019 USDA PDP
Carrots 2014 USDA PDP
Cauliflower 2012-2013 USDA PDP
Celery 2014 USDA PDP
Cherries 2014-2016 USDA PDP
Cherry tomatoes 2012 USDA PDP
Cucumbers 2015-2017 USDA PDP
Eggplant 2006 USDA PDP
Grapefruit 2015-2017 USDA PDP
Grapes 2016 USDA PDP
Green beans 2013-2016 USDA PDP
Honeydew 2008-2016 FDA
Hot peppers 2019 USDA PDP
Kale, collard and mustard greens 2017-2019 USDA PDP
Kiwis 2018-2019 FDA
Lettuce 2015-2017 USDA PDP
Mangoes 2017-2018 USDA PDP
Mushrooms 2012-2013 USDA PDP
Nectarines 2014-2015 USDA PDP
Onions 2017 USDA PDP
Oranges 2016 USDA PDP
Papaya 2011-2012 USDA PDP
Peaches 2014-2015 USDA PDP
Pears 2016 USDA PDP
Pineapple 2002 USDA PDP
Plums 2012-2013 USDA PDP
Potatoes 2016 USDA PDP
Raspberries 2013 USDA PDP
Snap peas 2017-2018 USDA PDP
Spinach 2016 USDA PDP
Strawberries 2015-2016 USDA PDP
Summer squash 2012-2014 USDA PDP
Sweet bell peppers 2011-2012 USDA PDP
Sweet corn 2014-2015 USDA PDP
Sweet peas (frozen) 2018-2019 USDA PDP
Sweet potatoes 2016-2018 USDA PDP
Tangerines 2012, 2019 USDA PDP
Tomatoes 2015-2016 USDA PDP
Watermelon 2014-2015 USDA PDP
Winter squash 2012-2013 USDA PDP

Before testing, the USDA processes each fruit or vegetable in the same way that people tend to do at home. For example, items with inedible peels are peeled, and those with edible peels are rinsed under cold water and drained before testing. Therefore, the USDA test results are a good indication of consumers’ likely exposure. Unprocessed produce tends to have higher concentrations of pesticides, as shown by testing by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.

To compare foods, EWG considers six measures of pesticide contamination:

  • Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides.
  • Percent of samples with two or more detectable pesticides.
  • Average number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • Average amount of pesticides found, measured in parts per million.
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample.
  • Total number of pesticides found on the crop.

Within each of these categories, we ranked the 46 fruits and vegetables and then normalized the ranks on a scale of 1 to 100, with 100 being the highest. For each food, we calculated a total score by summing the normalized rank from each metric. All categories are weighted equally, since they convey different but equally relevant information about pesticide levels on produce. The USDA test program includes both domestically grown and imported produce, and sometimes ranks differ on the basis of origin. In these cases, we displayed domestic and imported items separately to help you select the option with the lowest pesticide levels.

The Shopper's Guide full list shows how fruits and vegetables rank based on these total scores.

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. Research is constantly providing new insights into the threats posed to human and environmental health by pesticides. EWG designed this method to capture this uncertainty and enable consumers to reduce their overall pesticide load.

NOTE: As all Americans continue to adapt to the reality of daily life during the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, it is important to know that there is no evidence people can be exposed through food. The spread pattern of the coronavirus is quite different from that of foodborne pathogens like salmonella and E.coli. That is why, even though the risks of Covid-19 are serious, consumers should continue to eat plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables, whether they are conventionally grown or organic.

This article was adapted and updated from the 2019 Shopper’s Guide.

References:

  1. USDA, Pesticide Data Program. Agricultural Marketing Service. Available at: www.ams.usda.gov/datasets/pdp
  2. Vigar, V., et al., A Systematic Review of Organic Versus Conventional Food Consumption: Is There a Measurable Benefit on Human Health? Nutrients, 2020; 12(1), 7. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010007. Available at: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/1/7/htm.
  3. 3. Kesse-Guyot et al. Prospective association between organicfood consumption and the risk of type 2 diabetes: findings from the NutriNet-Santé cohort study. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, 2020; 17 DOI: 10.1186/s12966-020-01038-y Available at: https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-020-01038-y
  4. Papadopoulou, E., et al., Diet as a Source of Exposure to Environmental Contaminants for Pregnant Women and Children from Six European Countries. Environmental Health Perspectives, 2019; 127(10). DOI: https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP5324. Available at: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/full/10.1289/EHP5324.
  5. Chiu, Y.H., et al., Association Between Pesticide Residue Intake from Consumption of Fruits and Vegetables and Pregnancy Outcomes Among Women Undergoing Infertility Treatment With Assistance Reproductive Technology. JAMA Internal Medicine, 2018. DOI: 10.1001/amainternmed.2017.5038. Available at: http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/article-abstract/2659557
  6. Chiu, Y.H., et al. Comparison of questionnaire-based estimation of pesticide residue intake from fruits and vegetables with urinary concentrations of pesticide biomarkers. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, 2018; 28, 31-39. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/jes.2017.22. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/jes201722
  7. Gaskins A.J., et al. Dietary patterns and outcomes of assisted reproduction. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 2019; 220:567.e1-18. Doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2019.02.004
  8. American Academy of Pediatrics, Organic Foods: Health and Environmental Advantages and Disadvantages. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition and Council on Environmental Health, 2012; e1406 -e1415. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2012-2579. Available at https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/5/e1406

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