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Which Organic Produce are Worth the Bucks?

“Which produce should I buy organic?”

I get this question quite frequently from my friends who are, like myself and most people, trying to find the balance between eating and feeding their kids the best produce and staying within a reasonable grocery budget.

That’s when I refer to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) lists; the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15.

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How did they come up with these lists?

Based on information from pesticide contamination tests done yearly by the USDA and the FDA, which are conducted on 53 common fruits and vegetables, the EWG measures and ranks contamination in these six ways:

  • Percent of samples tested with detectable pesticides
  • Percent of samples with two or more pesticides
  • Average number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Average amount (level in parts per million) of all pesticides found
  • Maximum number of pesticides found on a single sample
  • Total number of pesticides found on the commodity

You can read more on their methods and details on their findings in the Methodology section in EWG’s website.

What’s in the Dirty Dozen?

The lists were recently changed based on new data published in May of 2011. In the latest survey by the USDA, apples topped the list with pesticide residue found in 98% of the apples tested.

The Dirty Dozen are the 12 produce most contaminated with pesticides. These–ranked from most contaminated–are apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, potatoes, domestic blueberries, lettuce, and kale/collard greens.

What’s in the Clean 15?

The 15 produce least contaminated with pesticides. Ranked from least contaminated, these are onions, sweet corn, pineapples, avocados, asparagus, sweet peas, mangoes, eggplant, domestic cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbages, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, and mushrooms.

How to use these lists?

These lists are not meant to scare you away from fruits and vegetables. Eating more fruits and vegetables, with or without pesticide residue, is better than not eating them at all. But if you want to nourish your body with the best produce, this is how you can use these lists:

  1. Buy the Dirty Dozen organic.
  2. If fresh organic is too expensive, buy frozen organic.
  3. Visit your local farmers market. Many small farmers do not use pesticides but cannot afford the organic certification. You might be able to get the same quality without the extra cost.
  4. Locate a produce co-op and find out where the Dirty Dozen produce are coming from and how they are grown.
  5. Start a produce garden in your house or community. Plant the Dirty Dozen produce if the climate and space allow it. (If you do that already, would you share any tips?)
  6. Load your grocery cart on the Clean 15. Make them the bulk of your produce purchase.

If you want to know more about this topic, I highly recommend reading the FAQ section of the EWG’s website.

Download the pdf file, available in EWG’s homepage, so you can print and take the list to the store. There’s also a Dirty Dozen free app on iTunes, but I just checked it and it had the old list.


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4 thoughts on “Which Organic Produce are Worth the Bucks?”

  1. Organically grown carrots and tomatoes are entirely different from their “non-organic” brethren. So just for taste alone, I would definitely pay more for organic carrots or tomatoes. A cat who arrived at about the age of 10 years old turned out to be a closet vegetarian (she would even eat tofu, peas, grains, basically anything I was eating caught her interest despite her carnivorous ways), but she was truly addicted to organic tomatoes. Ordinary non-organic ones didn’t interest her, she would sniff them and eat a little bit and then walk away, obviously disappointed. I discovered her addiction when she spent a half hour trying to get at a piece that had fallen behind something in the kitchen. So I gave her a fresh piece, which she devoured. Ever since then, whenever I went into the kitchen she trotted in with me, begging for another piece of organic tomato! The vet said it was okay, let her eat all the veggie fare (and tomatoes) she wanted. She was digesting it all fine, too.

  2. These are excellent tips- thank you. I have indeed been buying organic apples, which I feel better about and know taste better than non-organic and especially store-bought anyway.
    As for blueberries, unless you live on a farm w/them it’s going to cost you, in my experience…they’re a fortune at the farmer’s market, and in frozen they’re usually imported from Alaska, which is less than environmentally sound, right? At least they’re safe to eat, though.

  3. Nour El-Zibdeh, RD

    Jwoolman: very interesting. I never had a cat so I don’t know much about feeding them. Tomatoes and carrots are in neither lists, which means they are not super clean but also not super contaminated. Some studies found that organic tomatoes are more nutrient rich than conventional ones. Ideally, we should all eat organic all the time. However, it’s not possible for all of us, all the time for various reasons. And that’s why these lists are created–to help people make the best decisions they can.

  4. Nour El-Zibdeh, RD

    Thanks Michael,
    I hear you about blueberries. Few weeks ago, my 3-year old really wanted blueberries while we shopping. Knowing they’re out of season, I expected a high price. Organic and local are 2 different things, and we should do our best to make the best decision considering the environment, our health, finances. It’s not easy!

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