The 12 DIRTIEST Fruits & Vegetables

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It takes a toxic soup of chemicals and pesticides to get certain produce to your local supermarket. Here are the worst offenders, and how to lower your risk of exposure

SCAN ANY SUPERMARKET produce section and what do you see? Rows of brightly hued, blemish-free fruits and vegetables. They're gorgeous. But stop and ask yourself: Without help, could nature consistently deliver such picture-perfect greens and berries, any more than it fashions every woman into a beauty pageant contestant? Of course not. Plants, like people, have natural imperfections--and some require more help than others to look good, not to mention maintain their youthful looks as they age.

In the plant world, the equivalent of beauty products are the dozens of chemicals that farmers use to fend off insects, pests, weeds, fungal attacks, and rot. Not surprisingly, plants that are more vulnerable to attack need more of them. To help you tell which is which (and, therefore, which are best to eat organic, as opposed to those you can buy conventionally to save money), the Environmental Working Group publishes two lists-- the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The EWG rankings are based on USDA-tested levels of chemical residues that remain on conventionally raised fruits and vegetables after washing. Revised lists came out in the spring, with a couple of surprising new additions. But if you should find yourself in the grocery store without the lists in hand, not to worry. There are logical reasons some types of produce are "dirtier" than others. The clues are in the plants. Read their stories, and you'll never wonder again which is which--and where you can economize.

BUY ORGANIC (It's Worth It)

No. 1 Celery

WHY IT'S DIRTY Due to peak consumer demand around Thanksgiving and Christmas, 75% of the crop is grown during the fall and winter, when rain and wind promote the growth of bacteria and fungal diseases. And because we eat the entire stalk, it must be sprayed repeatedly to ward off pests. "Nobody likes to find a caterpillar-damaged stalk in their celery bunch," says Stuart Reitz, PhD, a research entomologist with the USDA.

No. 2 Peaches

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Sweet and succulent, peaches can be just as alluring to insects as to people. Farmers may spray peaches every week or two from bloom to harvest--and peach fuzz can trap pesticides, says peach breeder John R. Clark, PhD, a horticulturalist at the University of Arkansas, who peels every one of the thousands of peaches he eats each year.

No. 3 Strawberries

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Strawberries are not only sweet and juicy but also delicate and prone to disease, including fungal attacks that can turn them to mush during transit and storage. "With apples and peaches, a lot of spraying is cosmetic to get blemish-free fruits," says Richard Wiles, senior vice president for policy at EWG. "With berries, you're just trying to get them across the finish line into the store before they go bad."

No. 4 Apples

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Sweet-smelling and delicious, apples are susceptible to more than 30 insects and at least 10 diseases. And fungicides and other chemicals are added after picking to prevent tiny blemishes that can accumulate during storage of up to 9 months.

No. 5 Blueberries

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Blueberries are new on the Dirty Dozen list--possibly because the USDA began testing them only 3 years ago, after large increases in production. The berries are targets for insects such as blueberry maggots and bagworms.

No. 6 Nectarines

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Nectarines differ from peaches only in the absence of fuzz-- a trait that likely arose as a natural mutation of a peach tree--so it's no wonder they're susceptible to many of the same pests, including oriental fruit moths and peach twig borers. Thanks to their waxy skin, they don't retain as many pesticides as peaches. On the other hand, they are more vulnerable to rot and scarring.

No. 7 Bell peppers

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Unlike cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, sweet bell peppers (which are technically fruits) have no bitter compounds to serve as built-in insect repellents. They even lack the fiery taste of their cousins, the chile peppers. And the creases at their crowns may provide nooks for pesticides to accumulate, says Philip Stansly, PhD, an entomologist at the University of Florida.

No. 8 Spinach

WHY IT'S DIRTY Spinach is a mere leaf that's crunched by a variety of insects, including grasshoppers. In addition, says Wiles, "spinach tends to pull persistent DDT residues out of the soil and into the leaf." These chemicals remain in the earth decades after they were banned.

No. 9 Kale

WHY IT'S DIRTY The outer leaves are not removed before sale, so any amount of damage will make it unmarketable. Even natural enemies of the pests that feed on kale can be considered contaminants in harvested produce, so farmers spray for all bugs, including the "good" ones.

No. 10 Cherries

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY Because cherries are a naked fruit--without peel or protection--they're vulnerable to pests such as the western cherry fruit fly. If just one of its maggots is found in a shipment, the entire load of fruit must be dumped, according to quarantine regulations, so growers spray out of fear of losing their crops.

No. 11 Potatoes

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY New to the list, America's number one vegetable is sprayed 5 or more times throughout the growing season to protect against various pests-- and to ensure a crop of uniform shape and size for fast-food outlets and potato chip producers. After harvesting, another round of spraying occurs in the packing shed to ward off molds and sprouting.

No. 12 Imported grapes

WHY THEY'RE DIRTY During their long transit from the southern hemisphere, imported grapes are susceptible to Botrytis cinerea rot, which causes the fruits to split and leak. To prevent that, farmers spray aggressively with fungicides. (Domestic table grapes do not need the same spraying because most are grown in the dry desert climate of Southern California, where botrytis does not thrive.)

BUY REGULAR (And Save Money)

No. 1 Onions

WHY THEY'RE CLEAN Onions manufacture their own protective chemicals, a series of unpleasant-tasting sulfur compounds that discourage insect munching. Though farmers may spray early in the growing season, residues are removed when the dry outer layer of the bulb is shed during harvest.

No. 2 Avocado

WHY IT'S CLEAN Most of the pesticides that are used to treat avocados accumulate on the peel.

No. 3 Sweet corn

WHY IT'S CLEAN Corn is husked before eating, eliminating residues on the outside.

No. 4 Pineapple

WHY IT'S CLEAN Most spraying is done early in the growing season, so minimal residues remain after harvest. Those that do are removed with the thick rind.

No. 5 Mangoes

WHY THEY'RE CLEAN Mangoes are grown in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America, where the dry climate discourages fungus and hand weeding is a common alternative to herbicides. In addition--repeat after us--mangoes are peeled before eating.

No. 6 Sweet peas

WHY THEY'RE CLEAN They are protected by their pods.

No. 7 Asparagus

WHY IT'S CLEAN The spears spring up so fast, there's little time for insects to attack.

No. 8 Kiwifruit

WHY IT'S CLEAN Lacewings and parasitic wasps help control the pests that like to feed on kiwis.

No. 9 Cabbage

WHY IT'S CLEAN The plant is sprayed, but the outer leaves that absorb pesticides are discarded before sale.

No. 10 Eggplant

WHY IT'S CLEAN The eggplant has a slick surface that sheds chemicals easily.

No. 11 Cantaloupe

WHY IT'S CLEAN Though the melons are sprayed with insecticides, we don't ingest them because the fruit is cut out of the thick rind before, well, you know.

No. 12 Watermelon

WHY IT'S CLEAN The fruit has a thick protective rind that is not eaten.

No. 13 Grapefruit

WHY IT'S CLEAN Although farmers often use fungicides to control green mold, most of the residues remain on the peel.

No. 14 Sweet potato

WHY IT'S CLEAN The sweet potato has built-in defenses. If bitten, it oozes a milky-white sap that gums up insect mouthparts. Before they're sold, sweet potatoes are cured at warm temperatures and high humidity. This causes the skin to thicken, providing protection against damage and disease.

No. 15 Honeydew melon

WHY IT'S CLEAN Honeydew may be washed in diluted chlorine during packing in order to ward off rot-inducing microbes. But--need we say it again?--you discard the rind before eating. See, you're an expert already.

JUST REMEMBER that whether you opt for conventional or organic, you're better off eating more fruits and vegetables rather than less. And whatever produce you buy, wash or peel it before eating.
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THE DIRTY 12 (Go Organic)

1. Celery
2. Peaches
3. Strawberries
4. Apples
5. Blueberries
6. Nectarines
7. Bell peppers
8. Spinach
9. Kale
10. Cherries
11. Potatoes
12. Imported grapes

THE CLEAN 15 (Pick Regular)

1. Onions
2. Avocado
3. Sweet corn
4. Pineapple
5. Mangoes
6. Sweet peas
7. Asparagus
8. Kiwifruit
9. Cabbage
10. Eggplant
11. Cantaloupe
12. Watermelon
13. Grapefruit
14. Sweet potato
15. Honeydew melon

PHOTO (COLOR)

PHOTO (COLOR)

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By Josie Glausiusz

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