The Dirty Dozen

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

Should we splurge on organic produce? Following is a closer look at the Dirty Dozen, a list which many people rely on to help them decide. 

We all want to do what’s best for our families, but it’s expensive to buy all organic all the time. So, should we splurge on organic produce? Following is a closer look at the Dirty Dozen, a list which many people rely on to help them decide. 


🍎🍓I remember buying fruit with my mom as a kid. We would check for any bumps or bruises and maybe taste a berry to make sure the batch was good. That was about the extent of our vetting process.

These days, we want to know more. Is this cucumber organic? Are the apples local? How long should we wash berries before eating? Should we use a special fruit wash?

There seems to be a lot more to consider, and on surface, the Dirty Dozen helps address these concerns.

What is the Dirty Dozen?
Based on data collected by the USDA, the Dirty Dozen is a list of the top 12 conventionally grown fruits or vegetables that are most contaminated with pesticides (after washing in water and peeling when applicable.) This ranking is intended to help consumers decide which fruits and veggies are worth splurging on organic.

The same ranking system is employed to create a newer list, called the Clean 15, which ranks conventional produce with the least amount of pesticides.

Who developed the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15?
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) creates the list after interpreting the most up-to-date USDA-collected data. The EWG is an independent American nonprofit organization largely funded by individual donations and grants from charitable foundations. 

Their stated mission is to empower the public to make informed decisions in order to live a healthy life in a healthy environment. This is partly why they started publishing the Dirty Dozen in the 1990’s.

But there’s more to it…
The methods used to rank the Dirty Dozen have been called into question (many say it’s seriously flawed) and their reports to the public are misleading. Here’s why:

  • In 2022, a sampling of over 99.4% of conventional produce from 9 states had a residue level lower than the pesticide risk levels established by the EPA, and these levels have an additional safety margin of 10x the actual risk level for infants and children. 
  • In ranking toxin levels, each pesticide is weighed equally, even those that are harmless at any dosage.
  • Dosage is not taken into consideration even though the amount present is the most important thing. For example, I could eat a thousand conventional strawberries a day and still be below EPA risk levels (despite the presence of pesticides).
  • Organic products were not tested or compared, but organic farming does in fact use pesticides (they are just limited to which types). Meaning if organic produce were included in this ranking, pesticides any found on those products would be counted equally to pesticides on conventional produce.

So, back to reality
Because of my expertise, I am focusing specifically on the nutritional aspects of consuming organic versus conventional produce – not how organic farming methods impact the environment, which is a highly complex agricultural issue.

When comparing apples to apples – that is organic to non-organically grown – they have the same nutritional profile.

This is significant when considering EWG’s Dirty Dozen, because I believe they inappropriately urge consumers to believe this is not the case. Pesticides on conventional produce are negligible and current science dictates they do not pose harm to the consumer. US produce supply is safe for us to eat. The extensive research we are all familiar with – the association between the intake and fruits and vegetables with lower incidence of chronic disease – is not specific to organic produce.

The Dirty Dozen divides us
I’m looking most closely at basic nutrition. Most people in our country cannot afford to rely on organic produce. Making people feel badly for buying conventional produce may only serve to drive them away from produce aisles and farm stands, as surveys have shown that many people would rather avoid strawberries than buy conventional after seeing the Dirty Dozen lists.

In my opinion, this list creates undue food fear and further widens the gap between groups of people who consume the most produce and those who consume the least (regardless of whether or not it’s organic). Not surprisingly, research shows that people with the highest levels of fruit and vegetables consumption have a positive linear relationship with socioeconomic status and a negative linear relationship with incidence of chronic disease.

If we believe eating more fruits and vegetables will help us live healthier lives, placing unnecessary judgment on which produce we choose (by calling fresh produce “dirty” for example) is more harmful than helpful.

My recommendations?

  • Ignore the EWG lists and don’t feel pressured to buy organic because of them.
  • Choose fruits and vegetables your family likes to eat. Ann’s amazing recipes include a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables, and I encourage you to try. 
  • Wash produce with water before eating. A specialized fruit wash is not necessary.
  • Try new produce – and make it fun! Ann and I have been taste-testing fresh, canned, and pickled fruits and vegetables with the kids from our local Boys & Girls Club. The best part is describing why we prefer one or the other – is it the texture, the taste, the smell that sways us one way or the other? Which one will work better for the recipe at hand?

Key Takeaways
The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 rank pesticide levels in conventional produce. Though seemingly helpful to determine when to splurge on organic, the ranking systems are flawed. This promotes a deeper nutritional divide in this country, and turns people off from safe and fresh American produce.

Surprised by this information? Please post comments or ask questions below, because we love hearing from our readers!

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  1. Nancy Gladden

    Good article, but I was looking for a link to the Dirty Dozen and possibly the Clean 15. Scanned through twice after reading the article and I don’t think there was a link. As much of our produce in the US is imported during the winter months, I am also curious as to if acceptable pesticide standards exist in the other countries and if there are any fruits or vegetable that we should just avoid if we cannot buy them locally in season.

    1. Emily Post author

      Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your comment, we always appreciate hearing from readers. Here is the link you requested to the EWG

      Have a good weekend!

  2. Adey

    Wow. It’s about time that this good news is being spread far and wide. I especially like the section under “The Dirty Dozen divides us.” I do, sometimes, buy organic fruits/vegetables, but not because I think they’re more healthful. Sometimes — not always — I buy organic because it tastes better in my mouth. That said, there have been more times than I can count when I’ve paid more money for organic produce only to find it’s not worth the perceived taste improvement.

    Thank you for diminishing the health halo surrounding organics.

    1. Emily Post author

      Adey, thanks for your comment. I too have bought organic (especially when it comes to strawberries) and have felt underwhelmed. It’s definitely one of those topics that would benefit from more critical thought. There are many reasons why we choose the food we do, and sometimes we just need to take a step back to understand one another a bit better!

  3. Audrey Rohrer

    Not surprised, we are farmers and I could tell you many stories of how flawed the whole organic vs conventional fruits and vegetables is!

    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks for your comment Audrey – there’s definitely so much more to the story, and as a farmer you probably understand and appreciate that more than most!

  4. Meaghen Neumann

    Loved this article and perspective!!! It is so hard to decipher all the information out there and make good decisions regarding food choices for my family. Really appreciate your insight Emily!

    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks so much, Meaghen, there’s definitely a lot of nutrition information out there to comb through. I’m with you!