Deciding Which Produce to Buy Organic - The Dirty Dozen


I got to the farmer's market late today, and I wasn't able to snag any organic onions, just conventional ones. And after buying the organic beets and cabbage, I didn't have much cash left over anyway.

So I was happy to see that onions are the vegetable with the lowest "pesticide load," according to a list from the Environmental Working Group. This handy list, which I am totally going to take on every shopping trip from now on, ranks 45 common fruits and vegetables in terms of how likely they are to carry pesticides. The group's analysis is based on thousands of tests by the USDA and FDA.

If you only buy some items organic, you should prioritize the twelve items the group labels "The Dirty Dozen": peaches, apples, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, imported grapes, pears, sweet bell peppers, celery, lettuce, spinach and potatoes. The most consistently clean produce: avocados, pineapples, mangoes, kiwi, bananas, onions, sweet corn, asparagus, sweet peas, cabbage, broccoli, and eggplant.

If you are truly broke but concerned about pesticides, the best policy would be to avoid the dirty dozen altogether and only eat foods from the second group. Then again, if you are also trying to eat locally and don't live in the tropics, you're not going to get much fruit in your diet by sticking to the second group.

There are other reasons to eat organic besides concerns about pesticides on the food you eat -- conventionally grown corn in particular wreaks a heavy environmental toll, according to the eye-opening book, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. But if you are like me and constantly trying to balance health, the environment and a perilously tight budget, choices have gotta be made, and this information will help make the best choices you can.

By the way, too bad I didn't read the list before I went to the farmer's market this morning: I bought conventional apples, which are listed in the Dirty Dozen. I bought conventional apples (dirty) and organic cabbage (clean). Live and learn, right?

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Linsey Knerl's picture

Sadly, where we live, there is often no organic fruit to be had.  It's a 30 minute drive to the small selection at the store in the next town, and another 30 to Omaha (where organic is king.)  During the summer months, I don't worry much, as most of our food is grown locally.  But I was aware of this list, and it really got me to thinking.  Canned and frozen are a good way to go if you are unsure of your fresh goods.

Thanks for the reminder, Carrie!


Guest's picture

I didn't even know such a list would exist. That's great to know. I should try and find one here in New Zealand.

P.S. Today was the first time I never made it to the market since I started going and I have been gutted all day! I love it there.

Guest's picture

The EWG list is great - especially if you are shopping in chain grocery stores. I have found that many of the farmer's in my area use organic practices but aren't certified (due to the cost of certification in some areas) so if I am unsure I usually ask. If it is a local farmer selling to individuals at a market the chances are he produce hasn't been doused in pesticides.

Guest's picture

What about when budget is not low... when money is not tight? :P
Nice post .

Myscha Theriault's picture

A concise practical list. Now, I just need to get organized and get this in my coupon file . . .

Thanks, Carrie.

Guest's picture

I find that the farmers market is more often cheaper than the grocery store. More of the money is going directly to the farmer, less markup.

Talk to your farmers, more of them don't use pesticide than you would think and just can't afford the certification or are in the transitional phase between conventional and organic. It takes several years of following organic practices before they can become certified.

Guest's picture

Thank you for the good tips! We sometimes cut corners with organic foods, but now we know a little better where it makes most sense to stay with organic and to still stay within our food budget.

Guest's picture

From what I've read, it is still healthier to eat conventional fruit than to not eat that fruit all together. So I buy organic fruit when available and affordable, but don't worry too much otherwise. Eating conventional fruit and veggies are still healthier than missing out on them!

Guest's picture

I actually did a series of posts on the same thing a little while ago! Buying local is another key consideration, as well as minimizing hormones and mercury in products such as meat, dairy and shellfish.

A new country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) law was recently passed requiring certain foods to be labeled-- makes our lives a little easier:

Guest's picture

OMG you can't afford your yuppie food! Whatever shall you do?

Wake up, there's people who can't even afford to eat at all in your country.

Lynn Truong's picture

What about those "vegetable washes" that claim to clean off the pesticides and residues?

Myscha Theriault's picture

I've done those too, Lynn, at least the homemade kind. Even soapy water with a scrub brush and an after rinse is better than doing anything, I think. We don't always spring for organic either, and we eat a fair amount of apples and tomatoes.

Still, it's cool to know the list so we can invest differently in produce when we feel able to do so.

lghbob's picture

Seventy two tears of eating virtually everything has probably damaged this frail body and mind beyond repair.


From the early days of using the "flit" spray gun to chase cousin Margie around the garden, to the incredible joys of eating a propane fire blackened brat of dubious genesis, to a one time Tarzan's glut of 24 freshly picked uncooked oysters direct from a bed immediately in front  of the Pilgrims Atomic Power Plant in Buzzards Bay, I've poisoned my alimentary system to a degree that inures it from future harm.


  Aside... pretty sure that survival came because we Never ate the mussels that everyone know were deadly poisonous.  Some things were just too far offside.  Used to get $.15/hr for smashing mussel beds from the pier pilings  with a sledgehammer.


Yes... fresh picked tar from the metal grates that gave vent to the sewer gasses emanating from the central sewer line that runs down the middle of the road.  Road tar, heated to a shiny black consistencey by the sun... globbed on a stick, twisted like spun candy,  to be chewed with delight, because bubble gum was not available during the "war".


Vegetables eaten with dirty hands.. radishes, rareripes, potatoes and best of all early peas... most likely made safe by spraying with DDT.  Wormy apples, wormier peaches... (Rhode Island)...  Rhubarb, cleaned by stripping the thin red "skin"... sometimes (in the early years) indistinguishable from skunk cabbage... 'cept by taste.


In "fruit season"... all fruits in the bin in the back entry... often surrounded by those incredible scientific creatures called fruit flies.  No matter... Clean off the apple by rubbing on your shirt, bite into and spit out the wormholes  (hoping to not find half a worm).  The potatoes stayed in the bottom bin... growing "eyes". At $.03/lb, one never threw away potatoes, and potato skin soup was the main meal at the end of the week before payday. 


The fish, heads and all, come courtesy of Fred the Fish man, on Thursday... all lying side by side on the bed of chushed ice in the wood box where the trunk used to be in his 1935 Chrysler Coupe.   We picked out pieces of ice, brushed off the scales and enjoyed our ersatz popcicles.  Mom could always tell if the fish were fresh.  The eyes were still shiny.  


Fortunately the milk was ok... it said "homogenized " and we could go to Butterfly Farms where there was a glass enclosed set of stalls where the automatic milkers were attached to the cows... We just assumed that those four cows produced all of the milk for Pawtucket.  The "ball topped" bottles froze outside in the early winter mornings and the cream that lifted the cardboard top was our Ice Cream.


Most of us ate hamburg "raw", when we could snitch some, but were very aware that you Never, Never ate Pork that wasn't cooked.  Who wanted to get the dreaded "tapeworm"?  'course that didn't apply to bacon, ' because bacon isn't pork.  


The concord grapes on the vine behind the garage were ok to eat without being washed, because dad always sprayed them to keep the Japanese beatles away.  


Was there ever anything like "clean dirt"?  


How did we ever survive?       :-) 




my opinion only

Guest's picture

Don't buy organic, but only local & in season.

What's up next?

Sweet potatoes (you can keep your white taters), citrus fruits, etc.

Guest's picture

As consumers, we are constantly forced to make choices about how and where to spend our hard-earned dollars. These choices become all the more difficult to make when prices on everything from gas to groceries are on the rise. We want to do what is best for ourselves, our families, and our planet, but we also know we need to find ways to cut back. The question is, how do we effectively strike this balance?

Some have suggested that we respond to this question by picking certain organic products off store shelves and not others. Doing this, they argue, will help us keep costs down and maximize the personal health benefits that organic products have to offer.

While there may be merit in this argument, it misses an important point: buying organic is about more than keeping pesticides out of our bodies. It is about supporting a system of sustainable agricultural management that promotes soil health and fertility through the use of such methods as crop rotation and cover cropping, which nourish plants, foster species diversity, help combat climate change, prevent damage to valuable water resources, and protect farmers and farmers’ families from exposure to harmful chemicals.

In this sense, buying organic is about both understanding and commitment: understanding that personal and environmental health are inseparable, and commitment to the bigger, more complex picture of which our personal health is a part.

Buying organic is easier and in many ways more affordable than ever before. Not only do organic products appear on store shelves in mainstream retail outlets around the country, but thanks to the introduction of organic private label products, the growth of farmers’ markets selling organic products, and organic’s lack of dependence on petroleum-based farm inputs, the gap between organic and non-organic prices is closing. Indeed, in some cases, the price of organic goods is comparable to non-organic goods, making the decision to “go organic” simple and cost-effective.

Do we still have to make choices about which items to buy? Absolutely. But in making this choice, we should think less about crossing certain organic items off our shopping lists and more about how we can achieve positive personal, social and environmental change through the organic purchases we choose to make.

We must also give greater thought to the consumption choices we make that are most directly affected by rising fuel costs, such as the cars we drive, the distances we commute, and the temperatures at which we keep our homes. Along with the decision to buy organic products, it is these day-to-day decisions that determine whether we balance not only our checkbooks but our values.

Guest's picture

I'm a citizen, not a consumer.

Guest's picture

Didn't all food used to be organic? What happened to the world? We need to really examine what we are doing.

Guest's picture

Do people really still buy organic? I suppose if you're not into science, like the feeling that you're doing something good, and are willing to pay for that feeling, it could appeal.

The reality is that non-organic food, when done properly, is better for the environment and represents less of a health risk to you. Don't forget that most organic brands are owned by the "big agra" many organic believers despise, just as "big pharma" owns the majority of the supplement industry. Your beliefs and ideological stances are profitable, make no mistake about it.

I'm not trying to convert or insult any of you. Just ignore the "feelgood factor" for a bit and read a bit more from sources that aren't True Believers (in anything). Objectivity and impartiality are a good thing, as is education.

Guest's picture

I'm afraid you need to do some proper research. Organic farming contains no guarantees of pesticide-free produce. Indeed in many cases it uses more pesticide than conventional farming because it is forced to use old-fashioned broad-spectrum products while conventional farmers can use narrow-spectrum targeted ones.

That's not even to mention the vastly reduced yields from organic farming methods - in most cases. Perhaps you should google Norman Borlaug. And if I may suggest, you should read the requirements for Organic certification - and particularly the exceptions they can have from the rules.

And to those talking about buying local... I'm afraid you're potentially wrong too. Often importing food by the thousands of tonnes from half way around the world generates less pollution per kilo than the local food which is driven to market.

Guest's picture

you also need to buy certified organic becuase everything else gets irridated now by law and is hereby dead food due to the radiation treatment, which is used to kill bacteria.

Guest's picture

Oh my. I didn’t know that most of my favourite foods ended up in the dirty dozen. I hear a lot about pesticides in food but I've never bothered researching it myself. Reading your article scared me a lot. I really liked potatoes and to think that I made it as a home made baby food… Ugh! I will really have to buy organics this time. Thank you so much for posting this article. I will definitely memorise that list the next time I shop for food. I don’t want my money to be running away from me when I can help it. It’s never too late to make a change I guess.

Guest's picture

What a load of fertilizer about organic foods...All farmers, Organic or not use pesticides..

Organic food is more expensive than conventional food, due not only to its lower crop yields and more expensive organic fertilizers and pesticides in larger quantities, but mainly because it's such a big fad right now and is in such high demand.

Organic foods are healthier to eat?... That's another load of fertilizer...

Did you ever wonder why Chinese drink only hot tea? They boil it to kill the bacteria. Most local Chinese farming uses organic methods, in that the only fertilizers used are human and animal waste: Without being boiled, it's basically a nice cup of E. coli. In the case of China and other poor nations, the reason for organic farming has less to do with ideology and more to do with lack of access to modern farming technology.

Some supporters of organic growing claim that the danger of non-organic food lies in the residues of chemical pesticides. This claim is even more ridiculous: Since the organic pesticides and fungicides are less efficient than their modern synthetic counterparts, up to seven times as much of it must be used. Organic pesticides include rotenone, which has been shown to cause the symptoms of Parkinson's Disease and is a natural poison used in hunting by some native tribes; pyrethrum, which is carcinogenic; sabadilla, which is highly toxic to honeybees; and fermented urine, which I don't want on my food whether it causes any diseases or not.

Guest's picture

Why would I buy corn that's not organic? Isn't all corn grown in the U.S. artificial? How is broccoli clean? It's so easy to get it contaminated, the same goes with asparagus and kiwki.

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