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12 Foods To Buy Organic + When You Can Go Conventional and Save

strawberries top 2018 dirty dozen list
Photo credit: Marc Fulgar

Grocery shopping just got a little easier. There’s a new list of foods to buy organic. And it can help you avoid the foods with the most pesticides and save big on produce you don’t have to buy organic.

Take this scenario: There are two stacks of strawberries in the produce section at your local store. They look the exact same for the most part, except one costs $2 more. It’s organic.

The bargain shopper you were raised to be reaches for the less expensive option…

“But the pesticides…” the mom in you worries.

So you debate….

It’s just $2…

But, what about the rest? The grapes, bananas, the broccoli – do I need to buy all those organic too??

That extra $2, $1, 50 cents, it adds up.

Is organic really worth it?

The answer is it depends. Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, not as much.

That’s maybe not the simple yes/no answer you were looking for… good news is with a little knowledge you can spend and save where it counts.

Each year The Environment Working Group’s (EWG) puts out two handy lists: The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen. This year’s update just came out yesterday.

The Dirty Dozen gives the 12 crops that were found to have the highest amount of pesticide residue on them (ie. the list of foods to buy organic) and The Clean Fifteen lists the 15 with the least, if any, traces of bug killers.

These lists can help you decide what’s really worth spending on organic and where you can save with conventional produce.

Or, when organic isn’t an option, say when you’re traveling or eating out, you can choose to buy and eat vegetables and fruits from the Clean Fifteen list.

Using these as a list of foods to buy organic vs. conventional is a great place to start if you’re wanting to reduce your pesticide exposure without breaking the bank on your weekly grocery bill.

I get a lot of questions about whether or not organic is worth the price. So, I thought to help you better understand what going organic is all about, here are my answers to some of the most common questions when it comes to organic vs. conventional…

What does organic mean?

Organic means that the food was grown without pesticides. There are no synthetic ingredients in the fertilizer, and no bio-engineering, genetic modification or radiation was used. When something is genetically modified that means its genes have been altered. Scientists add new genetic material into the mix to make plants and produce (even animals) live longer or become resistant to a certain pesticide.

Are the pesticides and chemicals used in conventional farming harmful?

Any chemical or pesticide that’s used to grow conventional produce ends up in the food. And when we eat that food, those chemicals and pesticides go into our bodies. We are talking about agents designed to kill things here. Now consider this… Our bodies are a combination of chemical reactions. Everything from digestion to PMS is chemistry happening inside us. What happens when we add a new chemical (er, several) into the equation? That’s the thing. We don’t exactly know.

A recent study done at Harvard found an association between consuming high-pesticide residue foods and infertility. Women who reported eating two or more servings per day of produce with higher pesticide residues were 26 percent less likely to have a successful pregnancy during the study than participants who ate fewer servings of these foods. A previous study of male participants found similar associations between consumption of high-residue produce and reproductive health.

Why is organic so much more expensive?

Organic farming just takes a lot more work for a lot less produce. Organic farmers have to do a lot more weeding by hand and also lose a higher percentage of their crop to pests and run the risk of a total loss. Organic farms also have their crops on a rotation in order to keep the soil healthy and nutrient rich. Conventional farming has gone the way of clearing land and planting large fields of cash crops every season of every year without ever giving the soil a break. You’re able to grow more food year round this way, but it depletes the nutrients in the soil because there’s never time to replenish. That means fewer nutrients in the food that comes from it and the taste isn’t quite the same either. For instance, that tomato isn’t quite as juicy and sweet. Then there’s also the costs associated with being certified organic, which can be quite high.

Why does conventional fruit look brighter and bigger?

You know those strawberries you get at the grocery store that are the size of your fist and bright red, but when you bite into one it’s not so sweet? Conventional methods breed larger strawberries, apples, you name it. They also use chemical ripening agents to bring a fruit to its peak artificially. It’s cheaper and easier when you don’t have to wait for nature to take it’s course.

How do you know you’re getting organic?

The sticker on your produce has a PLU#. If there are 5 numbers that start with a 9, it’s organic. If there are 4 numbers that start with a 4, it’s conventional meaning conventional farming methods were used including pesticides, etc. Five numbers that start with 8 means the produce is genetically modified (GMO). And if it starts with a 7, it’s local.

What’s better, organic or local?

That sort of depends. The advantage to buying local is the produce is usually fresher (read: higher nutrition). Once an apple is picked or a broccoli stem is cut, it’s cut off from it’s life source and thus begins it’s slow decline – each day losing a little more freshness and nutrients. So if that broccoli was cut in Mexico and it takes a week to get to your grocery store, even though it’s organic it’s lost just about all it’s vitamin C. Now consider the local broccoli that could have been cut the same day because the farm is just a few miles away…

Often smaller local farms follow organic growing practices but maybe don’t have the USDA organic label because they don’t want that expense. The best thing to do is, if you can, find out more about the growing practice of the local farm. That’s what’s great about farmer’s markets – usually the people growing the fruits and vegetables are right there so you can ask and usually save some money that way.

What foods have the most pesticides?

As a good rule of thumb: anything that’s porous, fragile or grows 100 percent underground is more vulnerable to pesticides. So things like peaches, berries and potatoes will have a higher pesticide count than say a cantaloupe that’s fruit is protected by a tough skin. Try picking up the organic version of the produce items on this list when available and just see if you can taste a difference.

The Dirty Dozen

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Nectarines
  4. Apples
  5. Peaches
  6. Pears
  7. Cherries
  8. Grapes
  9. Celery
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Sweet bell peppers
  12. Potatoes
  13. Hot peppers

 

The Clean Fifteen

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn*
  3. Pineapple
  4. Cabbage
  5. Onions
  6. Sweet peas frozen
  7. Papayas*
  8. Asparagus
  9. Mangoes
  10. Eggplant
  11. Honeydew melon
  12. Kiwi
  13. Cantaloupe
  14. Cauliflower
  15. Broccoli

* Note, this list only regards pesticide use and does not tell us anything about whether or not these foods have been genetically modified. A small amount of sweet corn, papaya and summer squash sold in the United States is produced from genetically modified seeds. Buy organic varieties of these crops if you want to avoid genetically modified produce.

The best way to avoid genetically modified foods is to buy organic. This is especially important for corn, summer squash, zucchini, beets and soy.

Learn more about the EWG and The Dirty Dozen and The Clean Fifteen here.

Megan Adams Brown

P.S. Now, are you ready to get the most out of your pesticide-free produce? In my Eat Healthy program you’ll get a full month of weekly meal plans, shopping lists and step-by-step instructions to make the whole shop – cook – eat process easy, enjoyable, healthy (duh?), and delicious, too. Email me for more info.

The 12 foods to always buy organic - meganadamsbrown.com

Megan Adams Brown, CHC, helps families find healthy routines that work, with no more “what’s for dinner?” stress, and a lot better food. Her family meal plans help moms take charge of their kitchen and their own health, leading to more vegetables and less junk all around. Megan also specializes in working with food allergies and sensitivities and shares allergy-friendly recipes on her blog. To learn more click here.

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