Scientists, food industry experts, and health-conscious consumers were left to debate as conflicting information continued to emerge over produce and pesticides, with the release of the 2018 Dirty Dozen list on April 10. Here is what you should know.

What are the potential risks of being exposed to pesticides?

Ingesting high amounts of pesticide can be dangerous. A recent study suggested dietary pesticide exposure can reduce fertility among both men and women. Other studies found, depending on the dose, pesticides can affect the health of growing children. 

"Fruits and vegetables are very important for your health, but for those on the Dirty Dozen, we recommend buying the organic versions if you want to avoid pesticides on your food," said Sonya Lunder, a senior analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

What is the Dirty Dozen?

Since 2004, the EWG has published an annual list called the Dirty Dozen. The list ranks fruits and vegetables by levels of pesticide contamination. It was created after a 1993 landmark report from the National Academy of Sciences, shed light on children's exposure to pesticides. The EWG creates the compilation by analyzing the most recent tests from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The 2018 list saw strawberries taking the number one spot for the third year in a row. By order, the rest of the list included spinach, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery, potatoes, and sweet bell peppers.

Does this mean we should avoid these fruits and vegetables?

Not at all. Your body needs numerous vitamins and minerals on a daily basis, many of which are sourced from the aforementioned fruits and vegetables. The EWG recommends that consumers only avoid non-organic sources when consuming the produce on the list, not cut them out altogether.

This can be challenging when you're on a budget, but there are other tips you can follow. The National Pesticide Information Center (NPIC) explains how washing your produce with water can reduce dirt, germs, and pesticide residues. Furthermore, a useful guide from Colorado State University outlines steps to reduce your exposure to contaminants such as buying local, ensuring proper storage, washing at the right time and more.

Why is there controversy surrounding the list?

In recent years, many have expressed skepticism over the Dirty Dozen list, stating the pesticide contamination levels are not high enough to pose a significant risk. Furthermore, some experts believe the Dirty Dozen scares consumers away from consuming essential nutrients when access to organic sources is limited.

"I think that it’s a disservice to people to tell them to avoid all of these nutritious foods if they can't afford or don’t have access to the organic option," said Tamika Sims, director of food technology communications at the International Food Information Council.

Lastly, the USDA report which provides the basis for the Dirty Dozen states: "Over 99% of the products sampled through PDP had residues below the EPA tolerances."

How has the EWG responded?

"While regulators and scientists debate these and other controversies about pesticide safety, EWG will continue drawing attention to the fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide loads," Lunder stated.

The group also compiled a Clean Fifteen list which contains produce with the least amount of pesticide residue. It includes avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, cabbages, onions, sweet peas (frozen), papayas, asparagus, mangoes, eggplants, honeydew melons, kiwis, cantaloupes, cauliflower, and broccoli.