When you should buy organic and when you can save some money on conventional produce
OK to Buy Conventional
Always Buy Organic if Possible
|Leafy Greens and Spinach
|Meats and Poultry
Why Buy Organic?
Buying organic makes sense for the health of the earth, farm workers, and the health of your family … But if you’re pinching pennies (and who isn’t these days?), choose from this list, based on the Environmental Working Group‘s latest compilation of government data, of conventionally grown produce with the least pesticide residue. The fruits and vegetables on this list were the least likely to have pesticides detected on the parts you eat, after typical washing, whether or not they’re certified organic. Also, be sure to wash all fruits and vegetables like we do in food service, even if you won’t be eating the peel, because when you slice it your knife can carry the pesticides into the center.
Here is a list of produce that doesn’t absorb pesticides as readily so you can save money on them!
Onions Onions don’t see as many pest threats, which means less pesticide spraying. Look for onions that are firm, have a distinctive smell, and show no visible signs of damage or soft spots. Store in a cool, dry place or in the refrigerator.
Avocado Avocados have thick skins that protect the fruit from pesticide buildup. Look for avocados that are still somewhat unripe and firm to the squeeze; they’ll ripen nicely on your kitchen counter in a couple of days. Store at room temperature. Although you’ll be using only the meat of the avocado, it’s always a good idea to rinse them before you slice them open.
Corn Sweet corn may take a lot of fertilizer to grow, but you’re unlikely to end up with any pesticides on the kernels. There is nothing — we mean nothing — like fresh corn on the cob from a local farm stand in late summer. Buy it fresh and local, and boil it that day for the best results. Just be sure to wash the corn before boiling.
Pineapple You won’t be eating the tough pineapple skin, which protects the fruit from pesticide residue. As with all your produce, you should rinse the pineapple before cutting. Although tempting, this is one fruit that you won’t want to choose if it has a strong, sweet smell. This usually means that the pineapple is overripe and has even begun to ferment. Like all other fruits, avoid any that have soft spots, and in the case of pineapples, damage to the rind. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Mango Sweet mango flesh is protected by its thick skin from pesticides. Still, you’ll want to rinse under water before cutting open. Depending on the variety of mango, look for those that are bright in color, such as red, yellow, or orange. It should have a distinctive “fruity” smell. If there’s no ripe-fruit aroma, steer clear. Mangoes should be slightly firm, but yield to your touch somewhat — the softer the mango, usually the sweeter it is. If the mango is too soft, there’s a good chance that it will be rotten inside. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Asparagus Asparagus face fewer threats from pests such as insects or disease, so fewer pesticides need to be used. Look for firm spears with bright green or purplish compact tips. Plan on a 1/2 pound per person, and for more uniform cooking, select spears of a similar thickness. Store in the refrigerator vegetable crisper and give them a good rinse before using (even if you’re going to boil them).
Sweet Peas Sweet peas are among the least likely vegetables to have pesticide residue, according to the Environmental Working Group‘s latest survey of government data. If you’re not growing sweet peas in your garden, then look for full, green pea pods at your local farmers’ market, farm stand, or grocery store.
Kiwi Kiwi peel provides a barrier from pesticides. Give them a rinse before cutting. Here’s where your nose plays an important part when choosing fresh fruit. Sniff out kiwis that smell good. They should be plump and yield to a squeeze, like a ripe pear. Steer clear of those with moist areas on their surface or any skin bruising. If unripe kiwi are all that are available, simply take them home and place them in a paper bag at room temperature with other fruits that need more time, such as bananas or pears. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Cabbage Cabbage doesn’t hold as many pesticides because a ton of spraying isn’t required to grow it. What it does hold onto is beta carotene: It’s a superfood! Look for cabbage heads whose leaves are tight, and be sure the head is heavy for its type, and firm. For most cabbage varieties, you’ll want to make sure the outer leaves are shiny and crisp. Savoy is the exception to this rule, as it forms a looser head and the leaves grow crinkly naturally. You’ll want to avoid any with leaves that show signs of yellowing. Bok choy should have deep green leaves with their stems a crisp-looking white. Discard the outer leaves of a cabbage before using. You can wash and spin most cabbage leaves just like you do salad greens. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Eggplant Maybe it’s the thick skin, but eggplants are among the least likely to be contaminated by pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group. Look for firm and glossy eggplants to know they’re ripe and undamaged. Because they grow to various sizes, choose one proportionate to the dish you’re preparing.
Papaya Pesticide residue stays on papaya skin, so be sure to give them a wash before slicing open. Papaya colors usually range between yellow and green. Look for those that are slightly soft and show no signs of bruising or appear shriveled. If they’re not fully ripened, you can toss them in the brown bag along with your unripe kiwi fruit, peaches, and pears. Once they’re ripened, store in the refrigerator crisper.
Watermelon With that rind, watermelon has a natural defense against the onslaught of any chemical. Look for a firm, whole melon without any soft spots.
Broccoli Conventional broccoli doesn’t retain so many pesticides because the crop faces fewer pest threats, which means less spraying. Look for tightly bunched flower buds on the broccoli stalks that are immature. In other words, try not to buy them if their little yellow flowers have opened. Color-wise, the broccoli should be deep green and the stalks should be firm and not rubbery. Before use, wash in a cool water bath and change the water a couple of times in the process. Store in the refrigerator crisper.
Tomatoes Tomatoes were on the 2008 Dirty Dozen list of foods with the most pesticide residue, but the latest update finds them cleaner than most. Why? The Environmental Working Group isn’t sure. If you aren’t growing your own, look for fresh in-season tomatoes at local farmers’ markets and farm stands. Look for glossy, firm skin — and don’t hesitate to try a delicious heirloom variety that might not look like a typical tomato!
Sweet Potatoes Not only are sweet potatoes unlikely to be contaminated with pesticides, they’re also a superfood, packed with Vitamin A and beta carotene. It’s hard to go wrong choosing a hardy sweet potato. Just make sure it isn’t beaten up or rotting, and choose a size that matches the meal you’re preparing.
The New Dirty Dozen: Foods You Should Buy Organic
Not all of us can afford to go 100% organic every time we shop. The solution? Focus on those foods that come with the heaviest burden of pesticides, additives and hormones. According to the Environmental Working Group, consumers can reduce their pesticide exposure by 80% by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating only the cleanest. If consumers get their USDA-recommended 5 daily servings of fruits and veggies from the 15 most contaminated, they could consume an average of 10 pesticides a day. Those who eat the 15 least contaminated conventionally grown produce ingest less than 2 pesticides daily. EWG has been publishing guides to the “dirty dozen” of most pesticide-contaminated foods since 1995, based on statistical analysis of testing conducted by the USDA and the FDA. The latest guide is now available. The dirty dozen list only reflects measurable pesticide residues on the parts of the foods normally consumed (i.e. after being washed and peeled). We have listed these 12 foods, along with recommendations for foods other than fruits and vegetables, that are best bought organic. Can’t find organic versions of these foods? We list safer alternatives that contain similar valuable vitamins and minerals. It’s also important to remember that this dirty dozen list provides no information about antibiotics or hormones, or about the impact of producing food on the surrounding environment. It is for this reason that we point out some of the most important foods to buy organic, when taking a more holistic approach.
Meats and Poultry For overall environmental impact, meat is the king of foods, even if it’s not likely to be laced with pesticide residue… though a recent USDA Inspector General report found that the government is failing to even test meat for the harmful chemicals the law requires. While beef muscle is typically clean, beef fat is a different story altogether, with 10 different pesticides having been identified. Pork meat can be contaminated, but pork fat is more contaminated, with as many as 8 pesticides. For chicken, the thigh is most contaminated. Raising animals with conventional modern methods often means using hormones to speed up growth, antibiotics to resist disease on crowded feed lots, and both pesticides and chemical fertilizers to grow the grain fed to the animals. Additionally, it takes many times the water and energy to raise one meal’s worth of meat than it does one meal’s worth of grain. Consumers looking to avoid meats raised with these substances can seek out certified organic meat. To meet USDA standards, this meat can come only from animals fed organic feed and given no hormones or antibiotics. Searching out cuts from grass-fed animals ensures that you’re eating meat from an animal that was fed a more natural diet, and looking for a local source of meats lets you question the farmer directly about the animal’s diet and the farmer’s method of raising it. It cuts down on the environmental cost of transportation, too.
Milk Pesticides and other synthetic chemicals have been found in human breast milk, so it should come as no surprise that they have been found in dairy products, too. Twelve different pesticides have been identified in milk, and milk is of special concern because it is a staple of a child’s diets. Organic dairies cannot feed their cows with grains grown with pesticides, nor can they use antibiotics or growth hormones like rGBH or rbST. The overall impact of the herd is lessened when you choose organic milk.
Coffee Many of the beans you buy are grown in countries that don’t regulate use of chemicals and pesticides. Look for the USDA Organic label to ensure you’re not buying beans that have been grown or processed with the use of potentially harmful chemicals. Go a step or two further, and look for the Fair Trade Certified and Rainforest Alliance (or Bird Friendly) labels to ensure that your purchase supports farmers who are paid fairly and treated well. And look for shade-grown (Rainforest Alliance or Bird Friendly certified) varieties for the trifecta; that way you know the coffee is being grown under the canopy of the rainforest, leaving those ancient trees intact, along with the wildlife – particularly songbirds – that call them home.
Celery Celery has no protective skin, which makes it almost impossible to wash off the chemicals that are used on conventional crops. Can’t find organic? Safer alternatives include broccoli, radishes and onions.
Peaches/Nectarines Multiple pesticides are regularly applied to these delicately skinned fruits in conventional orchards. Safer alternatives include watermelon, tangerines, oranges and grapefruit. Strawberries If you buy strawberries out of season, they’re most likely imported from countries that use less-stringent regulations for pesticide use. Safer alternatives include kiwi and pineapples.
Apples Like peaches and nectarines, apples are typically grown with the use of poisons to kill a variety of pests, from fungi to insects. Scrubbing and peeling doesn’t eliminate chemical residue completely, so it’s best to buy organic when it comes to apples. Peeling a fruit or vegetable also strips away many of their beneficial nutrients. Safer alternatives include watermelon, bananas and tangerines.
Bell Pepper Peppers have thin skins that don’t offer much of a barrier to pesticides. They’re often heavily sprayed with insecticides. Safer alternatives include green peas, broccoli and cabbage.
Kale Traditionally kale is known as a hardier vegetable that rarely suffers from pests and disease, but it was found to have high amounts of pesticide residue when tested this year. Safer alternatives include cabbage, asparagus and broccoli.
Cherries Even locally grown cherries are not necessarily safe. In fact, in one survey in recent years, cherries grown in the U.S. were found to have three times more pesticide residue then imported cherries. Safer alternatives include raspberries and cranberries.
Potatoes America’s popular spud re-appears on the 2010 dirty dozen list, after a year hiatus. America’s favorite vegetable can be laced with as many as 37 different pesticides. Safer alternatives include eggplant, cabbage and earthy mushrooms.
Grapes Imported grapes run a much greater risk of contamination than those grown domestically only imported grapes make the 2010 Dirty Dozen list). Vineyards can be sprayed with different pesticides during different growth periods of the grape, and no amount of washing or peeling will eliminate contamination because of the grape’s thin skin. Remember, wine is made from grapes, which testing shows can harbor as many as 34 different pesticides. Safer alternatives include kiwi and raspberries.
Leafy Greens and Spinach Leafy greens are frequently contaminated with what are considered the most potent pesticides used on food (51 of them), though they dropped off the 2010 list. Safer alternatives include cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts.
Carrots Off the list in 2010, carrots have made the Dirty Dozen list in previous years because of the 26 different pesticides that have been detected in food residue. At least be sure to scrub and peel them. Safer carrot alternatives include sweet corn, sweet peas and broccoli.
Pears As insects become more resilient to the pesticides used on pears, more and more chemicals are used (28 of them), though pears have dropped off the 2010 Dirty Dozen list. The safest bet is to go organic. Safer alternatives include grapefruit, honeydew melon, and mangos.
Tomatoes Tomatoes, on the Dirty Dozen list in 2008, and the Clean 15 list in 2009, rank neither among the dirtiest nor the cleanest in 2010. It’s still true that the thin skin of tomatoes can allow pesticides to enter the fruit, so it’s always a good idea to buy organic when possible, even if the popular food is no longer among the worst actors. You may want to consider peas, broccoli and asparagus.