Should you be worried about pesticides on your fruits and vegetables? We talked to an expert to find out more.
Collage of different fruits and vegetables
Credit: Getty Images / MirageC / WIN-Initiative / Anita Kot / annick vanderschelden photography / Burazin

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) announced their picks for best and worst foods to choose organic, also known as The Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen lists. But when it comes to choosing produce—do you need to follow their lead?

90% of Americans don't get enough fruits and vegetables, and many families are food insecure—50 million Americans are experiencing hunger. (Learn more about the barriers to putting healthy food on the table). One of the big reasons people cite for not eating healthier foods is cost, and organic food does cost more. The lists from the EWG seem to promote fear around consuming conventional produce—these pesticides are linked with cancer! But when it comes to pesticides, the dose is important and levels found in produce is considered safe by the USDA.

Choosing organic is a preference for many consumers, and organic growing practices may be better for the environment. We sat down with Tamika Sims, PhD and Senior Director of Food Technology Communications with the International Food Information Council (IFIC) to figure out what you needed to know when it comes to the fruits and vegetables on your plate.

Do you think consumers should change their shopping habits based on these lists?

Conventionally grown and organic produce are equally safe and nutritious. One is not greater than the other—thus, there is no need to change shopping habits or avoid any fruits or vegetables. Whether you prefer to eat organic or conventional produce, you are choosing a safe and healthy way to access fruits and vegetables. Depending on where you live and what you have access to, you should try to make purchase choices that give you a well-balanced intake of fruits and vegetables.

How important is it to eat organic fruits and vegetables?

It is not important to choose organic versions of produce. If a person chooses to buy organic, that is their preference. But their preference should not be built upon misinformation that cites organic is healthier than conventional. 

What's the most important thing to tell people about fruits and vegetables? 

The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines cites that only one in 10 Americans is consuming the recommended amount of fruits or vegetables daily. This number if very concerning as a lack in consumption in these foods is linked to many noncommunicable disease like heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Additionally, some people who are told that organic is healthier and safer for them may lack access or enough money to purchase organic produce.

Whether fruits and vegetables are organic or conventional, it's a good idea to incorporate more of them into our diets. The problem with reports like EWG's that promote organic over conventional is that they may incite fear in consumers who have a tough time affording or having access to organic produce. Even if you can afford organic and have it available to you, it doesn't matter. The bottom line is that there's no demonstrable health difference between organically or conventionally grown produce. Focus more on eating enough fruits and vegetables and less on how they are grown.

Should people be concerned about pesticides in their foods and if so, what can they do?

Both conventionally grown and organic produce uses pesticides to protect crops from pests. The list of pesticides that can be used for organic produce is different than for conventional, but they are all made up of federally regulated compounds that are designed to kill or repel insects and other pests. Simultaneously, these compounds are designed to be safely used on farms and not harm consumers. 

Typically, pesticide residues that are on produce once they leave the farm are gone by time the food reaches the store. However, any minimal residues that might be present don't require alarm. People should just rinse their produce under running water before eating and that is sufficient.