Don’t let the Dirty Dozen scare you off
Every year consumers see more organic foods in grocery stores and at farmers markets as the number of certified organic farms in the United States rises.
And every year the nonprofit Environmental Working Group publishes a consumer’s guide that sorts fruits and vegetables into what they call the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. These lists rely on U.S. Department of Agriculture measurements of pesticide residues found on conventionally grown produce.
The two lists can help consumers who are interested in organically grown produce—typically more expensive than conventionally grown produce—zero in on products that will give them the biggest organic bang for their buck.
But some dietitians fear the Dirty Dozen tag can also play on people’s fears, steering them away from fruits and vegetables altogether.
Go ahead and eat
For Christy McFadden, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and the supervisor of medical nutrition therapy for Spectrum Health, it’s much more important that people eat fruits and veggies than whether the produce they choose is organic or not.
Calling conventionally grown strawberries and spinach “dirty” sends the wrong message, McFadden said—a message “that you shouldn’t eat that or they’re scary or they’re something to be concerned about.”
A more essential point, she said, is that we need to eat more fruits and vegetables—period—“whether they’re canned, frozen, fresh. Whatever you can get your hands on, and whatever you can enjoy.”
If people paid more attention to that, they’d be a lot better off, she said.
“Always—that’s always a dietitian’s message,” she said.
Fruit and veggie benefits
We’ve heard that message plenty of times. But what’s so special about produce, really? What do those nutrients do for us?
McFadden has a long list: “They keep our immune system strong. They fight infections. They keep our cells developing and growing healthy. They ward the harmful things off.
“On a cellular level, there are some very powerful things that nutrients only found in fruits and vegetables do.”
The benefits in those nutrients far outweigh the potential risks of pesticides, which exist at extremely low levels on conventional produce, she said.
McFadden is careful not to discount people’s concerns, however. For patients who are serious about increasing their intake of organics, she and her colleagues recommend finding the organic versions of the items at the top of the “dirty” list.
Whether we choose organic or conventional foods, McFadden stresses the importance of washing fresh produce before eating it.
“Even if it’s organic,” she said.
“It’s still outside, it’s still exposed, it’s still in the grocery store, people are touching it. You should always wash everything.”
Once it’s washed? Simply enjoy it, knowing it packs a healthy punch.