Strawberries top this year's Environmental Working Group dirty dozen list of the produce with the highest levels of pesticides. File Photo by Ismael Mohamad/UPI
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EVANSVILLE, Ind., April 8 (UPI) -- Nutrition scientists fear this year's list of the "dirty dozen" produce items -- those most highly treated with pesticides -- will scare people away from eating fruits and vegetables at a time when healthy eating is critical.
The list is compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. It uses data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rank produce based on the level of pesticides present on an item when it is offered for sale to consumers.
Topping this year's dirty dozen list, issued in March, are strawberries, spinach and kale.
"Let me be clear, we want people to eat lots and lots of fruits and vegetables," said Thomas Galligan, an EWG toxicologist and co-author of the group's 2020 Shoppers Guide for Pesticides in Produce, which includes the dirty dozen list.
"The benefits of eating fruits and vegetables outweighs the risks from pesticides," he said. "But we do think you should find ways to reduce your overall pesticide exposure if you can. That's why we make this list."
To avoid that pesticide exposure, the organization recommends eating organic produce, especially for the dirty dozen foods. The other fruits and vegetables on the list are nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes.
Some people in the nutrition field say the list scares consumers away from eating fresh produce -- especially low-income consumers who can't afford organic food.
A 2015 study conducted by researchers at the Illinois Institute for Technology's Center for Nutrition Research found exactly that.
The study surveyed low-income people about their likelihood to buy fresh produce after hearing various statements about organic foods, including data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the USDA, several studies and the EWG's dirty dozen list.
Roughly twice as many people said they were "less likely to buy fruits and vegetables" after hearing about the dirty dozen list.
The EWG has criticized the study, pointing out that 51 percent of the people surveyed said they were "more likely" to buy fresh fruits and vegetables after hearing the group's message rather than shun fresh produce.
"They're not wrong," said Britt Burton-Freemon, the center's director, who co-authored the study. "You can read the data that way. But, where we're concerned is this shifting behavior."
Burton-Freemon said her center performs these kind of studies to learn about how consumers hear and apply different messages about nutrition and food safety.
"If the message is that you should be eating organic, and you can't afford organic, the thought is 'I'll just eat nothing,'" she said.
This is not a good outcome, Burton-Freemon said. People should be encouraged to eat more fruits and vegetables, whether or not they are organically grown.
That is especially true now, said Elizabeth Shaw, a registered dietitian in California. The spread of the coronavirus pandemic means that people should be doing everything they can to bolster their immune systems -- and consuming fruits and vegetables has been proven to do that, she said.
"I call it immune support," Shaw said. "And it's so important, especially in the time we're in right now. We need to be encouraging more fruit and vegetable consumption."
Shaw added that conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are safe to eat -- even those on the dirty dozen list.
The EPA sets standards for the amount of pesticides that can be present on produce offered for sale in the United States, and those standards are far below harmful levels, she said.
"Our typical exposure to pesticides is far lower than levels of health concern," Carl Winter, an emeritus cooperative extension specialist in food and science technology at the University of California-Davis, said in an email.
"A graduate student and I published a paper in 2011 relating dietary exposure to toxicity for the 10 most frequently detected pesticides found on the EWG's 2010 Dirty Dozen list," he said.
"Estimated exposures were far below levels of toxicological concern. Recommending consumers reduce their consumption of conventional fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list is unwarranted."
The EWG agrees that the produce it lists does meet EPA standards for pesticide levels, but questions whether those standards are safe.
The group points to studies that show how pesticide exposure can harm individuals, and that people who consumer more organic produce have a lower risk of certain cancers.
"They're not illegally toxic or illegally dangerous," Galligan said. "But we argue that legal does not necessarily mean safe."