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These practices help reduce water pollution, improve soil fertility, promote biodiversity and mitigate climate change, but they also contribute to higher costs: in the U.S., organic foods cost an average of 47 percent more than their conventional counterparts, while in France, that figure is 79 percent.
So with those figures in mind, how can we ensure that we eat healthily and sustainably on a reasonable budget? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a handy list of a “Dirty Dozen” fruits and vegetables to prioritize buying organic over conventional, based on the residual pesticides they typically contain. As pesticide use varies widely between countries and regions, here’s a list of foods to consider buying organic, particularly for readers in the U.S. and E.U.
If there’s one food item to buy organic more than any other, it’s strawberries. In the U.S., over 90 percent of samples have been found to contain multiple pesticide residues, and the average sample contained traces of seven pesticides – many of which are banned in the E.U. due to their links to cancer and reproductive damage. Nevertheless, strawberries are also a cause for concern in Europe, where multiple residues have been found in over two-thirds of strawberry samples.
Policymakers on opposite sides of the Atlantic are divided on one particular chemical: the antioxidant called diphenylamine, which prevents dark patches from developing on the skin. Most U.S. apples are doused in diphenylamine; its residues have been found on 80 percent. The E.U. banned the chemical in 2012 citing potential health risks.
Table grapes are among the worst violators of E.U. limits on pesticide residues, with 68 percent of European samples found to contain residues of more than one chemical. Grapes also rank sixth on the EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, with an average of five pesticides found in U.S. samples.
Celery ranks poorly on chemical residues on both sides of the pond: 95 percent of samples in the U.S. contained traces of at least one pesticide, compared to 84 percent in the E.U., with multiple residues appearing in 64 percent of European samples.
5. Peaches and nectarines
The EWG reports that 94 percent of U.S. nectarine samples contained residues from several chemicals – and while peaches fare slightly better, residues of at least one pesticide were found in 99 percent of samples. The E.U. does not provide data on nectarines, but multiple residues appeared in 60 percent of its peach samples.
Another transatlantic pesticide debate has persisted over cherries: 30 percent of U.S. cherry samples contained iprodione, a possible carcinogen banned in the E.U. since 2018. But that’s not to say European cherries are particularly chemical-free – 65 percent contained traces of multiple pesticides.
7. Black, red and white currants
While rarely found in North America, black, red and white currants contained more residues than any other unprocessed foods in their native Europe: 76 percent of samples featured at least two, while 27 percent contained more than five.
8. Lemons and limes
While citrus fruits are typically consumed without the peel, lemons and limes are a notable exception – and while they do not feature on the Dirty Dozen list, 69 percent of lemon samples in Europe were found to contain multiple residues, along with 62 percent of limes.
No other food product exceeded E.U. pesticide health-based guideline values more than grapefruits, which also exceeded legal limits for four chemicals when randomly sampled.
In fact, multiple recent studies show similar levels of residues among all citrus fruits: a 2018 study found them on 95 percent of samples collected in Sicily, and a 2005 study on citrus sold in Switzerland yielded similar results.