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Fruits and Veggies: When To Buy Organic

We have all heard that it is better to buy organic produce so that we can avoid exposing our systems to unnecessary pesticides.  But let’s be honest: organic food is expensive – and with good reason.  It takes a lot of work to grow healthy food without toxins and miracle formulas.

So, if you’re on a budget, how do you decide where to spend your valuable dollars?  When it comes to buying organic produce, how do you decide what matters most?

Thankfully, we don’t have to guess.  Last week, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released their 2010 updated list of the most contaminated fruits and vegetables.  After almost 87,000 tests over the past ten years, they have ranked 49 common fruits and veggies in order from cleanest to dirtiest.

The new list includes some changes: for example, blueberries are making their first appearance in the top 12 most contaminated produce items,  also known as the “Dirty Dozen.” EWG’s studies show that we can reduce our pesticide exposure by 80% if we just avoid these 12 offenders, or buy organic instead.

The Dirty Dozen

When you can afford it, make the choice to buy organic when you’re buying these items.  They are listed here in order, starting with the most contaminated.

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Bell peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Kale
  10. Cherries
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes (imported)

Photo by D. Sharon Pruitt

The Clean Fifteen

The following fruits and veggies contain the least amounts of pesticides, so if your grocery dollars are on a tight budget, you can buy conventional varieties of these items and know you’re getting the least possible amount of pesticide residue.  They are listed here in order beginning with the cleanest.

  1. Onions
  2. Avocados
  3. Sweet corn
  4. Pineapple
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet peas
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Watermelon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Sweet potato
  15. Honeydew melon

Photo by liz west

The Other 22 Fruits and Veggies

You can see the full list of produce items and their rankings at the EWG’s food news website, where they also have a downloadable PDF available for you to keep in your wallet when shopping.

The EWG is a non-profit research organization; they are the same people who maintain the Skin Deep cosmetics safety database that Nicole taught us about earlier this year. They are a reliable source for unbiased environmental safety information.

Do you purchase organic fruits and veggies? Are you selective because of a budget? Do you think these lists will help you to budget your organic purchases more effectively?

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  1. Kara

    I usually try to buy organic when I’m at the local grocery store, however, if I end up at walmart…well then, I end up without because they pretty much carry only organic bananas. I do buy frozen veggies for use in stir frys and they aren’t organic, so I guess I only apply it to fresh fruits and vegetables.

  2. Stephanie P

    I try to buy organic as much as the budget allows. During the summer months I prefer local produce (ie famer’s markets) even if it’s not organic.

    While I’ve been aware of the EWG’s list for the past few years that they’ve put it out, I always forget about it when I’m out shopping. Putting this in my purse will prob help a lot!

    My dream would be to have my own garden and not have to depend as much on outside vendors but until I have a piece of land (or a balcony that gets any direct sunlight), I’m at the mercy of others.

    Perhaps I should make a friend who has a yard 😉

    • Katie

      Stephanie, you’re on to something… 🙂 be looking for a post in May about community gardens, shared garden spaces, etc.

      And local produce vs grocery organics will also be a topic for next week. you must be reading my mind… 🙂

  3. Maridyth

    Thank you, thank you, Katie.
    I want to share this with my food co-op because they tend to buy organic fruits and veggies that are not as toxic… like mangoes, pineapples, and avacados.

    This is so helpful!

    • Katie

      Maridyth, what kind of arrangement is your food co-op?

  4. Kara Fleck

    Thank you for this, Katie. I’m thankful to know that they’ve updated the list of foods to watch out for, but also glad to have the list of 15 foods that I can feel better about.

    It does take up a larger portion of our budget to eat organically, but I feel good knowing that money goes to support those who choose not to use pesticides – and we are selective in that we tend to eat seasonally as organics in season are better priced. I try to take advantage of the times foods are in season and stock up and freeze things for later, but we’ve also adjusted our habits and menus. We’re enjoying asparagus now while there is plenty of it, for example 🙂
    .-= Kara Fleck ‘s last blog: Showcase: Link Love =-.

    • Katie

      Which is a perfect way to do it, Kara! Eating seasonally is easier on the environment and also – I’ve heard (though I can’t back it up with hard data at the moment) that when you eat seasonally, you will get all the nutrients your body needs in each season over the course of a year.

  5. nopinkhere

    I am happy to see that most of the things I am able to find in my local grocery’s organic produce section are on the toxic end of the spectrum. The things I wind up buying conventional are mostly on the good list. Hooray!
    .-= nopinkhere’s last blog: Skirt Update =-.

  6. suse

    Does anyone know if this list is just for fresh produce, or all products with these items in it, like frozen or canned corn, or dried onion, onion powder, etc.

    • Katie

      I am not sure, but I would assume it’s all the same. I doubt that they use different methods for different “destinations” of the same fruit or veggie. But that would be a good one to look into.

  7. Nikki Moore

    I buy organic as much as the budget will allow, and when we have kids I’m sure I’ll be much more careful even than I am now.

    I have the EWG app on my iPhone, so when I’m out and about, I continually check it to make sure I’m not throwing money at stuff that doesn’t need to be organically grown.

    But I also recognize that organic isn’t the be-all-end-all either. Most of the produce at our farmers markets isn’t certified organic, but it’s grown naturally/sustainably/without the use of pesticides and other chemicals. So that’s fine with me, too. But I am very glad to have the EWG information when I’m shopping! It makes my decisions much easier.
    .-= Nikki Moore’s last blog: My True Feelings About Lawn Care (late night imagination) =-.

    • Katie

      That’s exactly the topic of one of my posts next week! Smaller local farmers usually can’t afford the organic certification. But they usually use more organic and sustainable methods.

  8. Tsh

    Very helpful list, Katie! This is quite an update from the previous list — I’m surprised celery is so high on the dirty dozen now.

    I’ve been shell-shocked at how expensive produce at the farmer’s market is here. I mean, I remember it being expensive when we lived here before, but it’s still a shocker. Overseas, it was actually cheaper to buy straight from the farmer at the neighborhood bazaar, so it was a win-win, both nutritionally and financially.

    Guess those days for us as a family are temporarily on hold… 🙂

    • Katie

      Yes. I know there are places in the States and around the world where the farmers’ markets are affordable or even cheaper, as you say – but here is not one of those places! It is too bad.

  9. Primal Toad

    I have seen the dirty dozen list a few times now. I have never seen the clean part of it. I will be downloading the PDF file at the site you mentioned to get the full list!

    One note… Corn is NOT a vegetable!

    I am on a tight budget so this list will help tremendously. It is unfortunate to see celery at the top of the list… I LOVE celery and have ALWAYS been buying conventional. Well, my mom buys it, but i still eat it! That will change right away!
    .-= Primal Toad’s last blog: Are You Lacking Motivation to Change? Watch The Best Motivational Video Now =-.

    • Katie

      True…I guess they include corn since most people think of it like a veggie. Anytime I try to explain to someone that it’s actually a starchy carb (grain), I often get a lot of blank looks. 😉

  10. Colleen Yvonne

    Are bark chips for vegetable garden walkways considered a contaminant? Quick, before
    my husband puts it down!!

  11. Kika

    I do appreciate lists like these. Unfortunately, where I live, it is impossible to find organic options for many of the most highly contaminated fruit/veg. So I do pay attention to the lists but also do the best with what we have.

  12. Sandra Lee

    It’s a huge help to have this list! Thanks for bringing it to our attention. I almost always buy organic, but it’s good to know when I can fudge a bit.
    .-= Sandra Lee’s last blog: Heal yourself with Qigong =-.

  13. Molly

    Thank you for this updated list, I follow it pretty religiously.

    I am currious about sweet corn being on the “safe” list. I avoid non-organic corn because of it’s very high potential of being GMO corn.

    Am I wrong? Maybe pesticides have not been detected at a high level because it is GMO…does that make sense.

    Just currious.

    Thanks again.

  14. Sarah

    There is a free app for the i-phone from EWG. It gives the clean 15, dirty dozen, and full list as well. I love having this reference at my fingertips as I purchase my groceries!

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