Pesticides in Produce: The 12 Most Important Organic Purchases

My friend and I were talking about nutrition this weekend, as I am wont to do, and the price of organic food came up. Here in New York, where a small box of shredded wheat is often $7, it’s hard to conceive of committing to an even more expensive lifestyle. (I’ve seen some marketing articles saying that moms are a big target for organic corporations, because they will buy only the best for their baby, even if they won’t for themselves.)

There’s rising awareness that all food is not created equal. Michael Palin, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, reminded us that organic foods are more full of nutrients and less full of pesticides. For anyone on a budget, however, the prices are hard to resolve.

One thing that helped me was to hear that certain fruits and vegetables are not as important to buy organic. It’s not a black-and-white situation! Whew! (I’m queen of the gray area.) Fleshy fruits and vegetables absorb more pesticides, so you want to buy those organic. Hard-skinned ones, you can go for cheap.

I found a great wallet card from the Environmental Working Group, here’s their list:

DIRTY DOZEN: (buy these organic)

  1. Peaches
  2. Apples
  3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  4. Celery
  5. Nectarines
  6. Strawberries
  7. Cherries
  8. Lettuce
  9. Grapes (imported)
  10. Pears
  11. Spinach
  12. Potatoes
CLEANEST 12: (can buy conventional)

  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Corn (frozen)
  4. Pineapples
  5. Mango
  6. Peas (frozen)
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi
  9. Bananas
  10. Cabbage
  11. Broccoli
  12. Eggplant

So I can skip the $4 organic broccoli at my local Key Foods.

You can download the wallet card, or get more information at Here’s their explanation:

Why Should You Care About Pesticides?
There is growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can adversely affect people, especially during vulnerable periods of fetal development and childhood when exposures can have long lasting effects. Because the toxic effects of pesticides are worrisome, not well understood, or in some cases completely unstudied, shoppers are wise to minimize exposure to pesticides whenever possible.

What’s the Difference?
An EWG simulation of thousands of consumers eating high and low pesticide diets shows that people can lower their pesticide exposure by almost 90 percent by avoiding the top twelve most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead. Eating the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables will expose a person to about 14 pesticides per day, on average. Eating the 12 least contaminated will expose a person to less than 2 pesticides per day. Less dramatic comparisons will produce less dramatic reductions, but without doubt using the Guide provides people with a way to make choices that lower pesticide exposure in the diet.

Will Washing and Peeling Help?
Nearly all of the data used to create these lists already considers how people typically wash and prepare produce (for example, apples are washed before testing, bananas are peeled). While washing and rinsing fresh produce may reduce levels of some pesticides, it does not eliminate them. Peeling also reduces exposures, but valuable nutrients often go down the drain with the peel. The best option is to eat a varied diet, wash all produce, and choose organic when possible to reduce exposure to potentially harmful chemicals.