Earlier this week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their annual "Dirty Dozen" list, which rounds up the fruits and vegetables that the organization claims carry the most pesticide residue.
As we've said before, this list isn't as scary as it sounds: The EWG determines the list by examining data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but doesn't take into consideration how pesticides have been shown to actually affect people's health when they rank the foods. In fact, studies have found that the risks of eating foods on the "Dirty Dozen" list are negligible, and you may not actually be doing anything beneficial for your health by switching to organic. Nevertheless, the "Dirty Dozen" list is back, and may seem a little dirtier in light of new research about pesticides and fertility.
In October of last year, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study in JAMA Internal Medicine that looked at the diets of hundreds of women undergoing fertility treatments. Using USDA data, researchers then estimated the amount of pesticides the women would be exposed to through their diets.
The researchers found that women who ate more than two servings of high-pesticide fruits or vegetables every day were 18% less likely to become pregnant and 26% less likely to have a live birth, compared to women who ate one serving daily. So, the study authors suggested that women trying to get pregnant go easy on high-pesticide produce, or opt for the organic versions. In other words: Here's one more thing you have to worry about when you're trying to conceive.
Eating more produce is priority number one, especially for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, regardless of whether it’s organic or not.
Torey Armul, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
Before you go full Kourtney Kardashian and swear off non-organic foods forever, there are some important points to consider. For starters, this study was the first of its kind, and should be replicated in other populations before we draw any hard and fast conclusions (the study only included people seeking fertility treatments, so the findings may not necessarily apply to a general population). "Definitely, everyone would agree it’s important to do more confirmation," says Sonya Lunder, senior analyst at EWG. "It’s critical for all those people for whom [having a baby is] the biggest issue on their mind." And when people are trying so many different strategies to get pregnant, it's almost impossible to pinpoint what "worked" for them.
Also, whether you're trying to get pregnant or not, eating some produce is better than deciding not to eat any produce at all because you're afraid of pesticides. "Eating more produce is priority number one, especially for women who are pregnant or trying to conceive, regardless of whether it’s organic or not," says Torey Armul, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In other words, you need to get fruits and vegetables however you can, and there's no need to be afraid of your produce. "If anything, research shows we should be more afraid of not eating enough produce," Armul says.
In the past, the Dirty Dozen has come under some fire for fear-mongering people into not eating their vegetables. And certainly labeling nutritious foods as "dirty" or "bad" could cause more harm than good. But, Lunder says that the EWG hopes the list empowers people to make educated decisions about the foods they eat. "This is saying you have choices," she says. "You make those decisions for yourself based on your age, your health status, whether or not you’re feeding kids, trying to get pregnant — but here are some big differences in pesticide residues that we know are useful to each person in making that decision for themselves."
The bottom line: Eat fruits and vegetables, but do what makes the most sense for your lifestyle. If you have access to organic fruits and vegetables, can afford to buy them, and think it's worthwhile, then that's great. (You can also get a vegetable brush and scrub your produce if you're concerned about pesticide residue, Armul suggests.) "But, it's clear that any produce, organic or conventional, is better than none and has tremendous benefits for fertility and pregnancy," she says.