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E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What are the most important foods to buy organic?
-- Rachel Klepping, Bronxville, NY (7/25/10)

Given the usual higher prices of organic versus conventionally-grown foods, it can be a challenge to get the biggest bang for our buck while eating healthy and avoiding the ingestion of synthetic chemicals along with our nutrients. One approach, say some experts, is to only buy organic when the actual edible parts of a non-organically grown food might come into direct contact with toxic fertilizers and pesticides.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that consumers can reduce their chemical exposure by some 80 percent by either avoiding the most contaminated conventionally grown fruits and vegetables altogether, or by eating only the organic varieties. To help us sort through what and what not to buy, the group offers a handy Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides, which fits on a small piece of paper that you can keep in your pocket and have handy on grocery trips. You can print it out for free from EWG’s website, or you can download it as a free App for your iPhone.

To make it easy to use, EWG has distilled its analysis into two lists. The first, “Dirty Dozen: Buy These Organic,” lists foods that when grown conventionally contain the largest amounts of pesticide and fertilizer residues. These include peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, kale/collard, greens, potatoes, and (imported) grapes. Consumers should definitely spend the extra money for organic versions of these foods.

Dirty Dozen and Clean 15

On the other side of the coin, EWG’s “Clean 15” list includes foods that contain the least amount of chemical residues when grown conventionally. These include onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangos, sweet peas, asparagus, kiwi, cabbage, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, grapefruit, sweet potatoes and honeydew. It’s OK to eat conventionally grown varieties of these foods.

EWG analysts developed the “Clean 15” guide using data from some 89,000 tests for pesticide residues in produce conducted between 2000 and 2008 and collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What’s the difference, you may ask? EWG found that by eating five conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables a day from the Dirty Dozen list, a consumer on average ingests 10 different pesticides; those who stick to the Clean 15 list ingest less than two.

Other foods you and your family eat, such as meats, cereals, breads and dairy products, might also be exposing you to unwanted chemicals. According to EWG, the direct health benefits of organic meat, eggs and milk are less clear, but you should play it safe by sticking with all-natural, free-range, grass-fed meats that are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and by choosing only organic dairy products.

Thanks to increasing demand, more and more food purveyors are putting extra emphasis on organics. This will ultimately result in both lower prices and larger selections. Natural foods market aisles are already teeming with organic choices—and chances are your local supermarket or big box store has introduced organic versions of many popular items. Consequently, there has never been a better time to take stock of what you are feeding yourself and your family, and to make changes for better health.


SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881;   E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe:; Request a Free Trial Issue: 


  Meatless Alternatives   |   U.S. Consumption Habits   |   A Better Food System   |   Is Organic Healthier?   |   Growing Green Awards   |   Sustainable & Organic Farming   |   Ag Report Highlights Organic   |   Bananas & Rainforests   |   Bulk Foods Are Green   |   Canada’s Organic Rules   |   Chicken, Organic Pasture Raised   |   Cow Pies to Clear Skies   |   Local Food & the Environment   |   Eco Friendly Dinnerware   |   Fast Food Recycling   |  Fish, What to Avoid   |   Garlic: California or China?   |   Generation Organic   |   Genetically Engineered Alfalfa   |   Good Food Awards Entries   |   Organic Food Health & Safety   |   Labeling GM Foods: Prop 37 Defeat   |   Local Food & Supermarkets   |   Local or Organic? pg 1   |   Local or Organic? pg 2   |   Location, Location, Location   |   Cow Pea Storage Bags   |   Drip Irrigation   |   Toilet Compost Fertilizer   |   Organic Farming   |   Organic Foods   |   Organic Foods Guide   |   Organic Reduces Cancer Risk   |   Organic Sales Increase   |   Organic Food Health Research   |   Labeling & Cloned Animals   |   Pros & Cons of Biofuels  |   Protein Source Impacts   |   Reverse Trick or Treating   |   Flying Fish Restaurant   |   Slow Food   |   Sustainable Sugars   |   Sustainability Award Winners 2012   |   Sustainable: What is it?   |   Think Globally, Act Locally pg 1   |   Think Globally, Act Locally pg 2  


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