Don’t let the Dirty Dozen scare you off

The power of nutrients in fruits and vegetables far outweighs the risk of pesticides, dietitian says.
Don’t veer away from the vegetable and fruit aisle just because it’s not organic—it’ll always be the healthiest part of the store. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

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.

Need help with healthy eating? Learn about nutrition counseling services at Spectrum Health.

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Comments (6)

  • As a nut and herbal tea grower, I researched organic growing only to discover that its the cost of the logo that drives the price of organic products. Growing organically does not require anything “special” or more farmer time. My statements are very general, because the reader should do their own research, as stated before, I already have… I’ll NEVER buy organic because the cost is prohibitive, but mostly UNFOUNDED.

    • Hi Pamela, thank you for reading Health Beat! You’ve raised some interesting points here, so I sent your post along to Christy McFadden, the Spectrum Health registered dietitian featured in this story.

      Here are Christy’s thoughts on organic pricing: “This may be true at times and with particular products. I often advise people to not buy organic wheat products because the cost is not much different (if at all) than conventional products. In that case the cost is related to what it does or does not take to produce a healthy crop. Other crops are more expensive because the crops yield a smaller portion for profit. There are many factors at play in pricing.”

  • People should know this that it is ok to eat as long as you wash it first. Thanks for putting this out there.

  • I agree with this article, it is far better to eat fruits and vegetables than to avoid them because of fear of pesticides. However, if you eat a lot of something, like lettuce, it probably should be organic. Price of organics is not a factor for plant-based diets…meat, dairy and fish are far more expensive…

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