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“Should I buy organic or not?”  “Do I need to buy everything organic?” “Organic is so expensive, is it actually worth it?” These are extremely common questions we are asked as dietitians.

What’s the correct answer? Well I guess there isn’t a black and white answer and usually we are just so super excited to hear that clients are eating fruits and vegetables regularly!

So what are the dirty dozen and clean fifteen? Is this a gang of dwarves Snow White forgot to mention?

Well actually The Environmental Working Group (based in the USA) analyses 48 types of conventionally grown produce that have been contaminated with pesticides. The top 12 are fruit and veg that have the most pesticide residues – the Dirty Dozen, while the Clean 15 are the top 15 with the least amount of pesticide residuals. The produce is tested for pesticides after they have been prepared to consume. Which means they are washed, peeled or cooked prior to testing. This list is updated on a yearly basis. So it is not a South African list, but we can use these results to help guide us.

So why is it important to know these lists?

Well, if you are trying to follow a clean eating, toxin free lifestyle, this acts as a handy shopping list to let you know which fruit and veg it’s worth splurging on and going organic and which ones you don’t need to worry too much about. It’s a good idea to choose the organic version for the Dirty Dozen, but not as necessary to go organic with the Clean 15. Many of the Clean 15 produce have an outer skin which is peeled before eating which also protects against pesticide residues.

Why are pesticides bad?

Pesticides are created to kill live organisms such as insects and fungi on plants and are toxic to us humans too. Many pesticides do potentially pose health dangers. It is suggested that some have been linked to brain and nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone disruption as well as skin, eye and lung irritation which doesn’t sound so great to me.


So what fruit and veg do the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 include?

Some interesting findings:

The Dirty Dozen:

  • 99% of apple samples, 98% of peaches, and 97% of nectarines tested positive for at least one pesticide residue.
  • The average potato had more pesticides by weight than any other produce.
  • A single grape sample and a sweet bell pepper sample contained 15 pesticides.
  • Single samples of cherry tomatoes, nectarines, peaches, imported snap peas and strawberries showed 13 different pesticides apiece.

The Clean 15:

  • Avo was the cleanest: only 1% of avo samples showed any detectable pesticides.
  • 89% of pineapples, 82% of kiwi, 80% of papayas, 88% of mango and 61% of cantaloupe had no residues.
  • No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than 4 types of pesticides.
  • Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5.5% of Clean Fifteen samples had two or more pesticides.


I’m on a bit of budget – what can I do if I just can’t afford to go organic?

It’s super important and helpful to thoroughly wash your fruit and veg just before you eat it to remove some of the pesticides, but unfortunately not all the pesticides will be washed away. If for example one of the Dirty Dozen has a peel (e.g. an apple), you can always peel this off as this is where most of the pesticide will be. The downside to this is that then you will lose out on that bit of beneficial fibre.

Another important tip is to buy seasonal fruit and veg. This also ensures that you are getting nutrient packed produce. Buying frozen produce is also a good option as berries for example have a lot of pesticides, but frozen is a great alternative.

There isn’t too much literature on the superior nutrition of organic vs. ‘normal’ produce and this is another reason why buying fruit and veg that is in season is so important.

The bottom line is that eating fruits and veg regularly (whether it is or isn’t pesticide residue free) is a GOOD thing and the benefits of including fruits and vegetables daily into your diet outweighs the risks to potential pesticide exposure. So come on an make sure that you and your family are going to town on your veggies. Remember the biggest portion on your plate should always be your veg!

Munchwize Dietitians are based in Claremont, Cape Town.

Contact us here