Each year around this time, when March Madness beings and spring finally shows its face, a list called "The Dirty Dozen" is published by a consumer watchdog group called the Environmental Working Group (EWG). The list rounds up the kinds of produce that contain the most pesticide residue, which the EWG determines by examining data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
This year — hold onto your desk salad — kale was ranked third on the list, right after strawberries and spinach, which have been on previous years’ lists. "We were surprised kale had so many pesticides on it, but the test results were unequivocal," Alexis Temkin, PhD, a toxicologist for EWG said in a press release. "Fruits and vegetables are an important part of everyone’s diet, and when it comes to some conventionally grown produce items, such as kale, choosing organic may be a better option."
This might sound scary, especially if you're someone who enjoys a kale salad or green smoothie on the regular, and can't afford to buy organic all the time. But it's important to take a step back and contextualize this list before you freak out. For starters, we've known for a while that the "Dirty Dozen" tends to evoke fear in consumers without saying anything about the health risks pesticides pose. As we've said before, a 2011 study in the Journal of Toxicology took an in-depth look at the EWG's methods and found that the pesticides they look for pose "negligible risks to consumers," and that swapping for organic doesn't reduce consumer risks. On top of that, the researchers said that the EWG's methodology "lacks scientific credibility."
As for kale? These findings are not a reason to switch over to a different leafy green (unless you're bored by kale, which is understandable). An adult woman could eat 18,615 servings of kale in one day without any effect — even if the kale has the highest pesticide residue recorded for kale by USDA, according to the Alliance for Food and Farming pesticide calculator. And if you are nervous about pesticides, you can always just wash your kale using a vegetable brush tool to remove the pesticides — it's that simple.
Basically, this "Dirty Dozen" list shouldn't make you fear the produce aisles. (As Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, of Street Smart Nutrition pointed out on her blog, research suggests that the "Dirty Dozen" list could negatively impact people's produce consumption — and that's a very bad thing.) Most of us would benefit from eating more produce, conventional or organic, Torey Armul, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told Refinery29. "If anything, research shows we should be more afraid of not eating enough produce," Armul said. So, you can return to your kale salad bowl now.