January 2020 Issue

Ask the Expert: Pesticides and Produce
By Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 22, No. 1, P. 10

Q: Many of my clients are asking me about the amount of pesticides on their produce. What’s the best way to counsel them?

A: With the push for organic produce and the release of the “Dirty Dozen” list by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a consumer advocacy organization, many clients have concerns about pesticides on produce. RDs should understand the nuances of the argument for organic vs conventional foods and be able to provide science-based information to make clients feel good about any type of produce they choose to eat—organic or conventional.

Setting the Record Straight
Study after study has shown the benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption. Research shows there’s no nutritional difference between organic and conventional foods.1 However, every year the EWG releases the “Dirty Dozen” list, which ranks produce with the highest amounts of pesticide residue, while their “Clean Fifteen” list ranks the top 15 produce varieties with the least amount of pesticide residue. These lists have been shown to make clients fearful of purchasing conventional produce; in a 2016 study, participants were afraid to purchase conventional produce due to its pesticide rankings on the “Dirty Dozen” list, and the cost of organic produce deterred low-income individuals from buying any fruits or vegetables.2

Other studies have examined the health risks of eating organic vs conventional produce. One study showed that substituting organic fruits and vegetables for conventional varieties, as advised by the EWG, didn’t result in any decrease in risk for consumers, as pesticide residue on conventional produce is extremely low, if it’s present at all.3 Conversely, a 2015 study found that more frequent consumers of organic produce had lower urinary levels of the pesticide dialkyl phosphate compared with conventional produce consumers, but all consumers’ exposures were within the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) established safe limits.4

Joan Salge Blake, EdD, RDN, LDN, FAND, a clinical professor at Boston University and host of the podcast SpotOn!, says, “The USDA has had a Pesticide Data Program (PDP) in place since 1991, which manages the sampling, testing, and reporting of pesticide residues on both domestically grown and imported foods.” Salge Blake explains that the PDP works hand in hand with the EPA, which determines safe limits for pesticide residues on foods. The latest PDP report states that more than 99% of the foods Americans eat, including produce, have pesticide residues well below levels the EPA has established as safe.5

Furthermore, Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND, founder and president of Farmer’s Daughter Consulting, Inc, says, “Pesticide residues on both conventional and organic produce are within limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the limits that are allowable are 100 times lower than what has been shown to be safe for consumption over a lifetime.” She emphasizes that the EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” relies on analysis that shows very low levels of residue (in parts per billion), which can be detected, as instruments measuring residues become more powerful. However, very low levels don’t necessarily indicate an associated hazard.

Recommendations for Clients
With most of the population not meeting the recommended daily amounts of fruits and vegetables, it’s imperative for clients to not hold onto fear of pesticides as a barrier to consumption. In addition, RDs should make clients feel good about their food choices whether they choose to eat organic or conventional produce. One of the best resources for practitioners and clients is the Pesticide Residue Calculator (www.safefruitsandveggies.com/pesticide-residue-calculator) from the Alliance for Food and Farming. In addition, Myrdal Miller recommends several resources for RDs, including the Produce for Better Health Foundation, which offers continuing education webinars on this topic, along with its free newsletter, which RDs and clients can sign up for at https://fruitsandveggies.org. The Alliance for Food and Farming also has a plethora of science-based resources about produce safety at www.foodandfarming.info.

— Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND, is the founder of Toby Amidor Nutrition (http://tobyamidornutrition.com) and a Wall Street Journal best-selling author. Her cookbooks include Smart Meal Prep for Beginners, The Easy 5-Ingredient Healthy Cookbook, The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, The Greek Yogurt Kitchen, and the forthcoming The Create-Your-Plate Diabetes Cookbook and The Best Rotisserie Chicken Cookbook Ever. She’s a nutrition expert for FoodNetwork.com and a contributor to U.S. News Eat + Run and Muscle&Fitness.com.


1. Smith-Spangler C, Brandeau ML, Hunter GE, et al. Are organic foods safer or healthier than conventional alternatives?: a systematic review. Ann Intern Med. 2012;157(5):348-366.

2. Huang Y, Edirisinghe I, Burton-Freeman B. Low-income shoppers and fruit and vegetables: what do they think? Nutr Today. 2016;51(5):242-250.

3. Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary exposure to pesticide residues from commodities alleged to contain the highest contamination levels. J Toxicol. 2011;2011:589674.

4. Curl CL, Beresford SA, Fenske RA, et al. Estimating pesticide exposure from dietary intake and organic food choices: the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Environ Health Perspect. 2015;123(5):475-483.

5. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service. Pesticide Data Program: annual summary, calendar year 2017. https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2017PDPAnnualSummary.pdf. Published December 2018.