The USDA’s Pesticide Data Program (PDP) measures pesticide residues on thousands of fruit and vegetable samples every year. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) uses that data to rank fresh produce based on a collection of metrics, such as the percent of samples with detected pesticides, average number of pesticides found, and average concentration of pesticide. They publish these rankings as their Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists, guides for shoppers that recommend choosing organic versions of those on the Dirty Dozen list.
In 2020, EWG published its list as usual but added a notice about a food not usually included in its rankings – raisins. EWG usually only considers fresh produce in their rankings, however, USDA tested raisins in 2018 (for the first time since 2007), and based on EWG’s ranking methodology, raisins would be #1 on the Dirty Dozen list if they were included.
The EWG found raisins to be a particular concern for several reasons:
EWG also noted that although the USDA detected pesticides less frequently on organic raisins, there were still pesticides detected. For example, bifenthrin residue was comparable in conventional and organic. They also expressed concern about fumigation of raisins during storage to control pests. The gases used for fumigation may be hazardous for workers, the environment, and consumers. Fumigant residues are not measured as part of the USDA’s PDP, but organic production forbids the use of fumigants.5
Based on this information, it makes sense to choose organic raisins, especially for children. To be clear, eating vegetables and fruits, whether organic or conventional, protects against chronic diseases. Even the highest pesticide residue levels detected on produce are very far below the chronic reference dose, the estimated dose of a chemical a person could be exposed to daily throughout life without any harmful effects.6 However, there are environmental benefits of organic agriculture, and there may be health benefits too. Since raisins are a dried fruit, which means their sweetness is concentrated, they should be limited compared to fresh fruit, and I recommend choosing organic.
Read more: Should we only buy organic produce?
Munoz-Quezada MT, Lucero BA, Barr DB, Steenland K, Levy K, Ryan PB, Iglesias V, Alvarado S, Concha C, Rojas E, Vega C. Neurodevelopmental effects in children associated with exposure to organophosphate pesticides: a systematic review. Neurotoxicology 2013, 39:158-168.
EFSA Panel on Plant Protection Products and their Residues (PPR). Scientific Opinion on the developmental neurotoxicity potential of acetamiprid and imidacloprid. EFSA Journal 2013, 11.
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Raisins: No. 1 on the Dirty Dozen List? [https://www.ewg.org/foodnews/raisins.php]
Winter CK, Katz JM. Dietary exposure to pesticide residues from commodities alleged to contain the highest contamination levels. J Toxicol 2011, 2011:589674.