Are Food Lists Like the “Dirty 12” Harmful To Public Health?

I’m poisoning my toddler – every day, multiple time per day in fact.

That was my initial reaction to reading the 2017 edition of the EWG’s list of the “Dirty 12”.

But, wait a second, my family eats well and I spend a TON on groceries each week.  My kids have fruits and vegetables at each sitting.

Shouldn’t I feel okay about the mostly-wholesome foods entering my kids’ little bellies?

The EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides has me feeling defeated – so many of our normal food choices show up!

This year’s “Dirty 12” include:

  1. Strawberries – always in our fridge
  2. Spinach – not a big deal but we eat spinach salads once a month
  3. Nectarines – nope
  4. Apples – staple, both in squeeze-packages and the crispy, original form
  5. Peaches – nope
  6. Pears – I buy pears a few times a month if they are on sale
  7. Cherries – nope
  8. Grapes – staple, green or red
  9. Celery – staple alongside carrots for an afternoon snack
  10. Tomatoes – staple
  11. Sweet Bell Peppers – staple to mix up P.M. snacks with humus
  12. Potatoes – we eat potatoes infrequently (they take too long to cook) so we’re good

So, what do I do?

First, I need to calm down and really understand what the EWG is measuring.  The EWG’s list captures fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue relative to each other, as tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

There are three absolute truths about the fruits and vegetables listed:

  1. The list uses credible sources and more-than-adequate sample sizes (over 36,000 samples).
  2. All foods, even the “Dirty 12”, contain less than acceptable levels of pesticide concentration for safe consumption according to the E.P.A. (Phew, I’m not poisoning my little ones with strawberries!)
  3. Every food listed is better than a processed, non-fruit or vegetable alternative.

Understanding these to facts, makes me feel better.

The “Dirty 12” or “Clean 15” lists are not pitting good foods versus bad foods.  Rather, they should be educating consumers about what is better and best.  The difference is important.

Critics of such lists, like The Alliance for Food and Farming, insist that they do more harm than good, particularly with low income families.  Too often, they say, “dirty” lists will prevent families from even considering the purchase of such items – often electing an even worse alternative.

The Alliance for Food and Farming stated in a press release:

“Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s (IIT) Center for Nutrition Research surveyed low income consumers to learn more about what terms and information about fruits and vegetables may influence their shopping intentions.  Among the key findings, misleading messaging which inaccurately describes certain fruits and vegetables as having “higher” pesticide residues results in low income shoppers reporting that they would be unlikely to purchase any fruits and vegetables – organically or non-organically grown.”

There has to be room in-between.

I like the disclosure that the EWG’s lists provide, but agree that if used as a pseudo skull and crossbones, they are harmful to those less food savvy, and operating on a tight budget.

To me, using a “Best-Better-Rest” methodology as an easy, effective reference for healthy consumption that does not ignore the need for a family to stay within a budget.

Maybe, stores could hang simple, visual cues that separate foods into three tiers, without shame and without judgement:

Tier 1 (a.k.a. The Best): these foods include all-natural products that are cultivated through organic practices.

Price Level: Highest ($$$$)

Examples include: organic produce and eggs, and organic, free-range and grass-fed proteins like beef or chicken

Tier 2 (a.k.a.: The Better): conventional fruits and vegetables, beans, lean meats and reduced fat dairy.  Note: both the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” reside here in my opinion.

Price Level: Average ($$$)

Examples include: non-organic produce and low-fat meats, milks and cheeses

Tier 3 (a.k.a.: The Rest): anything else; generally canned or boxed, processed and non-perishable

Price Level: Inexpensive ($)

Examples include: fruit snacks, frozen dinners, juice boxes, most cereals/cereal bars and chips.

I’m not Dr. Oz and am a novice in making disciplined food decisions for each meal.  I buy plenty of Tier 3 items – I cannot ignore the value in some faster, less expensive dishes during some busy days.

The real solution, for me, is figuring out the best mix of “Best-Better-Rest” that my weekly food budget can withstand.

Today, I’d estimate having a ratio of: 50% Tier 1 / 30% Tier 2 / 20% Tier 3.

My simple math tells me that for each 1% jump to a higher tier, I need $2 extra of budget.  So, eliminating all Tier 3, for me, will cost an additional $40 per week at the check-out lane.

There is no shame in a slow climb toward more Tier 1 intake, just as there is nothing wrong with my 1 year-old eating non-organic strawberries each morning.

I’ll do the best I can while utilizing lists, like the “Dirty 12” or the “Clean 15″, for what they are: a great point of reference.

I will not, however, misconstrue these resources as an indictment of being a crappy parent, or validation of my place in the imaginary Good Dad Hall of Fame.


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