According to the United States Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the following fruits and vegetables are the most commonly eaten — and most commonly full of chemical. Use these tips to limit your risk of ingesting pesticides, too.
Why strawberries risky: ”Strawberries are very tender and very delicate and grown close to the soil,” says says Chensheng (Alex) Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental exposure biology, Harvard School of Public Health. That’s also where insects live, so farmers often resort to pesticides. To prevent mold and extend shelf life, they also use fungicides, even after harvest.
How to lower your exposure: Buy organic berries to help avoid harsh chemicals. A 2008 study at Emory University and the University of Washington found that certain pesticide levels dropped to undetectable (or close to it) in the urine of kids who switched to organic fruits and veggies. “The organic certification guarantees you that significantly fewer pesticides and lower amounts of pesticides were used in the growing of that commodity,” says Anne Riederer, Sc.D., assistant research professor at Emory.
Why it’s risky: Grown for months, celery is subjected to more pesticides over a long period of time. Unlike broccoli, which is sheltered by big leaves on big bushes, celery is not protected from pesticides.
How to lower your exposure: Buy organic or frequent farmers’ markets with small growers who can’t afford or choose not to use expensive pesticides, says Lu. (Don’t be afraid to ask the sellers about their use of pesticides.) Or try a cleaner green veggie alternative, like avocado or asparagus, both of which have low exposure to pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Why they’re risky: To keep production up, farmers use pesticides on crops that are especially vulnerable to bugs, like peaches. The so-called “fragrant fruit” (yummy for pests) is also very thin skinned, which makes it easy for bugs and pesticides to enter. Farmers want to prevent diseases such as “leaf curl,” which reduce the number of peaches they can harvest from their trees. An August 2009 Chicago Tribune investigation reported that USDA tests showed more than 50 pesticide compounds end up on domestic and imported peaches.
How to lower your exposure: If you love peaches, go organic—especially if you’re pregnant or have a child under 6, says Riederer. Or for a sweet alternative with a similar texture, try domestically grown plums, which typically have less exposure to pesticides, according to the EWG.
Why they’re risky: Insects like nectarines, especially when the fruit is young or when the trees are blooming. So many farmers decide to use pesticides to lower the risk of losing the battle of the bugs.
How to lower your exposure: If organic nectarines aren’t available, skip them. The thin skin means pesticides are absorbed easily, making it impossible to scrub them clean. Try domestic plums or fruits with thick skin—like watermelon or pineapple—that protect their insides.
Why they’re risky: Chemical companies make pesticides specifically for apples since they’re hugely popular and widely grown.
How to lower your exposure: Buy organic, scrub thoroughly, and peel off the skin. And when shopping for organic apples, don’t get too hung up on looks, says Lu. They may not look as good as regular apples, but they should taste fine and because they were grown without pesticides, they are better for you.
Why they’re risky: Blueberries, largely grown in North America, are very susceptible to pests—the skin is permeable and very fragile, which makes it easy to eat through. When growers use pesticides, many of them go right into the flesh of the berry. Don’t freeze your blueberries, either. “Freezing preserves pesticides,” says Lu. Though some pesticides break down over time, that won’t happen in the freezer.
How to lower your exposure: Buy organic or from local growers who don’t use pesticides, and wash thoroughly. Berries, in general, tend to be more vulnerable to pesticides than other fruits like kiwi and bananas because of their thin skins.
7. Sweet Bell Peppers
Why they’re risky: Native to Central and South America, sweet bell peppers are the ripened form of the more bitter green variety. That means they’re grown for a longer time and are exposed to more pesticides than their green relatives.
How to lower your exposure: Try organic or farmers’ market sweet bell peppers—or opt for green varieties over red, at least.
Why it’s risky: Because its leaves grow above ground, spinach has a lot of exposed surface that gets sprayed with pesticides. It’s tricky to get good-looking spinach that hasn’t been chemically treated to kill bacteria.
How to lower your exposure: Buy organic or farmers‘ market spinach—and, again, don’t worry if it’s not perfect looking, says Lu. “A small bug hole is not going to hurt consumers. It’s a cosmetic defect.” Or, for a leafy alternative, try cabbage, which the EWG ranks as one of the cleanest types of produce. (More than four-fifths of cabbage samples, about 82.1 percent, had no detectable pesticides.)
9. Kale and Collard Greens
Why they’re risky: Like spinach, these leafy greens have a lot of exposed surface area that can absorb pesticide and chemical spray.
How to lower your exposure: If you don’t have a local farmers’ market, why not try to grow your own? Kale, one of the hardiest of edible greens, is relatively easy to grow in a home garden. Then you can ensure no harmful chemicals were added in the growing process. Or shop for cabbage as an alternative.
Why they’re risky: This fleshy stone fruit is usually grown in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. It hides behind leaves to stay safe from fruit flies and moths, but farmers tend to douse the fruit with chemicals to make sure they get a good harvest, says Lu.
How to lower your exposure: Look for farmers’ market or organic cherries.
Why they’re risky: Just because potatoes grow below the ground, doesn’t mean they’re safe from pesticides “We find pesticides in below-ground vegetables,” says Riederer. “They’re taking it up out of their leaves or the soil around them.” Early in the growing season, farmers inject pesticides into the soil, and later, they may crop dust, says Lu.
How to lower your exposure: If farmers plant on a very small scale, they may not need many chemicals, says Lu. Look for potatoes grown by small local farms. Or try sweet potatoes, which were among the cleanest vegetables tested by the EWG.
12. Grapes (Imported)
Why they’re risky: Grapes are tender and thin-skinned, which makes them vulnerable. To ward off the grape berry moth and other pests, farmers often turn to pesticides.
How to lower your exposure: Avoid imported grapes, unless they are grown organically. Domestically grown grapes were found by the EWG to have less evidence of pesticides, ranking in the middle of the 49 foods tested. But organic grapes are still safer.