When Organics are Worth It (and when you can get away with conventionally-grown)


Do I dare to eat a peach?

– T.S. Eliot, from the Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

There’s no two ways about it: we pay dearly for our organics.
The premium is usually 20–100%, and when the conventional counterparts are laced with toxic chemicals we gladly fork it over.
But an all-organic diet isn’t always practical or available, much less affordable. Thankfully, there are times when it’s not essential.

The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen give you a strategy for stretching your grocery budget. Using pesticide residue testing data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Working Group ranks the most popular produce items by levels of pesticide contamination. Shop selectively with these rankings as your guide and you’ll reduce your exposure to pesticides while getting the most bang for your grocery buck. 

The Dirty Dozen
You just have to bite the bullet and pay the premium for organic varieties of these twelve fruits and vegetables. Pesticide levels are so high that even with careful washing and peeling there is no way to avoid ingesting a good-sized dose.

Thin-skinned fruits and vegetables are almost always more susceptible to pesticides leeching into the flesh. Apples have especially high levels because of the crevices at the top and bottom of the fruit. Similarly, spinach and celery are very porous, leaving pesticides trapped in the small openings. While peppers have thick skins, pesticide residue clings to the surface even when they are scrubbed.

It’s estimated that you can reduce your total pesticide exposure by 80% if you stick with organic varieties of just this dozen fruits and vegetables:

AppleApples           StrawberriesStrawberries                     Red PepperBell peppers        CeleryCelery
PeachesPeaches         NectarinesNectarines (imported)       GrapesGrapes               Spinach Spinach
LettuceLettuce          Blueberries Blueberries (domestic)     Potatoe Potatoes            Cucumber Cucumbers


The worst of the worst:
Based on pesticide residue testing data, imported nectarines are the worst offender. Every single sample tested positive for pesticides, and the total weight of pesticides clinging to the fruit is the highest of any food crop. Apples, celery, and imported plums are close behind, all testing positive in more than 95% of samples. Bell peppers have the distinction of contamination by the greatest variety of pesticides. The USDA found 88 different pesticide residues among its bell pepper samples, with as many as 15 different pesticides detected on individual samples.

The Clean Fifteen
These fifteen fruits and vegetables tend to have low levels of pesticide contamination even when they are grown conventionally. Most of the fifteen have thick, protective skins, husks, or pods, while broccoli and cabbage are cold weather crops that are grown when pests are less prevalent. Tree fruits often require fewer pesticides because they are high above the ground where they are less susceptible to insects.

If you’re rationing your grocery budget, there’s room for compromise with these items:

OnionsOnions           Sweet CornSweet Corn        PineapplePineapple                      AvocadoAvocado
CabbageCabbage        PeasSweet peas        Asparagus Asparagus                    MangoMangoes
EggplantEggplant        KiwiKiwi                  Cantelope Cantaloupe (domestic)   Sweet PotatoesSweet potatoes

GrapefruitGrapefruit     Watermelon Watermelon       Mushrooms Mushrooms


The best of the pretty good:
Based on pesticide residue testing data, avocado, sweet corn and onions are the cleanest conventionally-grown food crops with no detectable pesticide on 98% or more of the samples tested. Pineapple tops the 90% clean mark, while about two out of three melons are pesticide-free. Multiple contaminations are rare among the Clean Fifteen, and no more than one type of pesticide was detected on more than 90% of cabbage, asparagus, sweet peas, eggplant, and sweet potato samples.


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