by Tandis Bishop

If you're shopping on a budget, you can save money by knowing which foods you should buy organic. They're the ones that otherwise would be conventionally grown and have the highest levels of toxic chemicals and pesticides. Therefore, they are the highest priority to buy organic in order to avoid these agricultural chemicals. And you can save a little more money by buying conventionally grown items that are typically produced with fewer "baddies."  The key is knowing the difference. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit environmental health research and advocacy organization helps us know the difference by releasing their “Dirty Dozen” list each year. The list ranks fruits and vegetables by highest amounts of pesticide contamination. The EWG advises that if you can’t afford to buy all organic produce, you should at least try to buy the dirty dozen organically, and you should make sure to wash fruits and vegetables before consuming them. Listed below are 12 + 1 items that the EWG recommends you buy organically grown. Listed in order of produce with the highest to lowest levels of pesticide contamination are:

Dirty Dozen

  • Apples
  • Celery
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Grapes
  • Hot peppers
  • Nectarines (imported)
  • Peaches
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach
  • Strawberries
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Kale, collard greens, and summer squash:  The EWG has extended its list with a "plus" category for the past two years. These vegetables did not meet the traditional dirty dozen criteria but were commonly contaminated with pesticides exceptionally toxic to the nervous system.

You can also save money by using the EWG’s “Clean Fifteen” list of conventionally grown produce with the least amount of pesticide residue. This will help minimize your exposure while shopping on a budget. These fruits and vegetables are shown to have the least amount of pesticide contamination.  Listed in order, starting with the lowest levels of pesticides:

Clean Fifteen

  • Asparagus
  • Avocado
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Sweet corn
  • Eggplant
  • Grapefruit
  • Kiwi
  • Mango
  • Mushrooms
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Sweet potatoes

Other ways to prioritize your grocery items and save money:

Include organic dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt, etc) into your shopping budget. Conventional dairy cows are fed antibiotics, hormones, and pesticide-laden grains, all of which end up in the milk. Conventional milk is a special concern as it is part of a child’s staple diet. Invest in organic dairy as you are investing in good health for yourself and your family.

Buy locally grown. Local produce is sometimes not as heavily treated with pesticides and chemicals. Some small local farms use sustainable, organic methods to grow produce but cannot afford the costs of organic certification to market their product as organic. Plus, local produce is sometimes less expensive than organic items shipped from the mainland. To learn more about local produce in stock, ask a Down to Earth produce team member the next time you’re in the store.

Be practical. Eating conventional produce is better than not eating any fruits or vegetables at all. Make sure to wash your vegetables thoroughly (both organic and conventional). Choose conventional produce with thick skin that you can peel, or remove the outer leaves (such as lettuce) to reduce pesticide contamination.

You want to provide the best nutrition for your family and you know that buying USDA certified organic fruits and vegetables is the best option to reduce your exposure to pesticides. As the demand for organic foods continues to grow, so does the vast selection of organic products on the market. More Americans are opting for organic products as people become aware of the potential harmful effects of pesticides and chemicals found in conventional foods.

People are buying USDA certified organic food because they are learning that it is healthier than conventionally grown food. This is particualrly important for children and pregnant women. Compelling evidence shows that they are most vulnerable to the hazards of pesticides in fruits and vegetables.1,2,3,4  Knowing that these groups are at highest risk of exposure, it is important for them to eat organic food as much as possible.

Fortunately, going organic can be affordable and practical.

Footnotes: 
  1. Lu, Chensheng, et al. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides.” Environ Health Perspect. Feb 2006; 114(2): 260–263.
  2. Ye, X. et al. “Levels of metabolites of organophosphate pesticides, phthalates, and bisphenol A in pooled urine specimens from pregnant women participating in the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa).” Intl J of Hygiene and Environmental Health. Volume 212, Issue 5, September 2009, Pages 481–491
  3. Eskenazi B., et al. “Organophosphate Pesticide Exposure and Neurodevelopment in Young Mexican-American Children.” Environmental Health Perspectives Vol. 115, No. 5 (May, 2007), pp. 792-798
  4. Lu, Chensheng, et al. "Dietary intake and its contribution to longitudinal organophosphorus pesticide exposure in urban/suburban children." Environmental health perspectives 116.4 (2008): 537.