Clean and Dirty Organic Foods: Safe and Unsafe Residue

Clean and Dirty Organic Foods: Safe and Unsafe Residue

Pesticides are a growing problem in the developed world, where many consumers are kept in the dark about how their food is produced and what chemicals are used during the production process. For the most part, authorities are working to make this cycle more transparent, insisting on strict labelling and controlling what can and cannot be used during the manufacture of certain foods, but there is still a lot of uncertainty on the side of the consumer.

We have covered the differences between organic and non-organic before, where we made it clear that we’re all for the former but understand there is still a need for the latter. But there is one important factor that we didn’t cover, and that’s the fact that pesticide residue is more of a problem in some foods than it is in others.

Dirty and Clean Organic Foods

In the United States, consumers can base their organic/non-organic purchasing on something known as the “Dirty Dozen and Clean 15”. This is a relatively well-known list created off the back of a report by the USDA wherein a number of fruits and vegetables were studied for their pesticide levels.

All fruits and vegetables grown with the use of pesticides may still have some of those chemicals on them, albeit in trace amounts (this is why you should always wash fresh fruit and veg). The USDA merely wanted to know what the worst offenders were.

From this report, a list of produce with the highest levels of residue (“Dirty Dozen”) and a list of produce with the lowest levels of residue (the “Clean 15”) was created. You can see both lists at the bottom of this page.

The Best and Worst Organic Produce in the United Kingdom

Similar tests have been done in the UK, and they have arrived at many similar results, albeit with some significant changes. For instance, the UK list includes spring greens and prepacked salad leaves, which are often consumed straight from the bag without washing (although some suppliers do prewash them).

Herbs were also high on the list and actually made it into the top ten. This is one of the reasons we stress the importance of organic herbs and teas here on Shelgo Tea, and why we made sure that everything from our lavender to our camomile was organic.

Some of the most surprising additions to this list are grains. The average UK consumer would not think to buy organic oats, for instance, yet one study found that over 83% of samples tested contained the residue of multiple pesticides. It’s a similar story with other grains and starchy foods, including rice, pulses, and wheat.

On the flip side, popular foods like beetroot, corn, mushrooms, and onions had very little (and often none at all) pesticide residue, so your chips are probably safe from these nasty chemicals (now you just have to worry about the saturated fat and salt!).

Organic US versus EU

The EU is generally stricter than the US when it comes to food safety and this can be seen in all areas, from food additives (there are over 15 additives in McDonald’s fries in the US, but just 3 in the UK) to pesticide use, and as long as the UK is still under the banner of the EU this will remain the case.

A lot of the scaremongering concerning additives in this country actually comes from US articles and reports. That’s not to say that we don’t use questionable ingredients and potentially dangerous pesticides, because we most certainly do, but that it’s much more tightly controlled in the EU than it is in the US.

In 2013, the EU restricted the use of neonicotinoids, a pesticide believed to be responsible for bee colony collapse disorder, before banning them outright in 2018. In the US, a few states have restricted the use of neonicotinoids after acknowledging the potential issues, but as of late 2018 they have yet to face a blanket ban.

In both the UK and the US, organic means the same thing, but there can be significant differences concerning the production of non-organic produce.

The Dirty Dozen

What follows is a list of produce said to contain the highest level of pesticide residue by the USDA:

  1. Strawberry
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarine
  4. Apple
  5. Grape
  6. Peach
  7. Cherry
  8. Pear
  9. Tomato
  10. Celery
  11. Potato
  12. Bell Pepper

Just because something is on this list doesn’t mean you should avoid it. As discussed above, the EU has much tighter controls where pesticide use is concerned, but even if that wasn’t the case, 99.5% of the samples tested by the USDA had levels below the tolerance level.

The Clean 15

In addition, 22% of the samples tested by the USDA during their report had no pesticide residue whatsoever. This doesn’t mean that pesticides can and should be used freely on the following fruits and vegetables—they still harm the ecosystem—but it does mean that you’re consuming little to no residue when you buy non-organic versions of the following:

  1. Avocado
  2. Corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Cabbage
  5. Onion
  6. Peas
  7. Papaya
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mango
  10. Aubergine
  11. Honeydew Melon
  12. Kiwi
  13. Cantaloupe Melon
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Broccoli

How to Stay Pesticide Free

Contrary to what some lifestyle bloggers would have you believe, it’s not easy and it’s not cheap to follow a 100% organic diet. It’s probably cheaper and easier than you think, but it takes some effort to shop only at organic stores, or to root around in your supermarket to make sure you’re only buying organic produce, and it’s also more expensive than non-organic.

As far as nutrition goes, there have been varying studies concerning whether organic produce actually has more nutrients. But it definitely has fewer pesticides, and that’s what matters. If you’re worried about consuming pesticides, keep all of the following in mind:

  • Wash all fresh produce before you eat it.
  • Buy organic if you can afford to.
  • If you can only afford (or find) some organic produce, focus on the “dirty dozen”.

It’s also important to support the local stores and stalls that sell organic produce, because giving them your business helps them grow. The bigger they become, the easier it will be for you to find wholesome, inexpensive, organic produce. And once that happens then the suppliers will start growing more organic produce and the supermarkets will start stocking more of it as well.

Back to blog