How to Decide Which Fruits and Vegetables to Buy Organic

How to Decide Which Fruits and Vegetables to Buy Organic

There are lots of benefits to organic fruits and vegetables. Produce grown on industrial farms is subjected to a steady rain of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, all of which can find their way into the foods you eat. These farms are also very damaging to the environment: monolithic fields of identical crops destroy biodiversity, leach nutrients from the soil, and require huge amounts of  processed fertilizer to maintain. But organic foods can be expensive or hard to find, so while you may want to always purchase organic fruits and vegetables, this isn’t always a practical option. So how do you decide which fruits and vegetables to buy organic? Below you’ll find three things to consider when shopping for your produce, as well as a list of the necessary (and not so necessary) organic fruits and vegetables.

Pesticide Residue

Pesticide residue is one of the most important things to consider when looking for organic fruits and vegetables because some amount of chemical pesticides can be found on almost every piece of produce in a grocery store. Every year, the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG) tests store-bought produce for pesticides and publishes a list of the cleanest and dirtiest fruits and vegetables. The rating system takes into account the percentage of each type of fruit or vegetable that tests positive for pesticides, the number of different pesticides identified, and the average and maximum amount of pesticide per sample. They estimate that if you eat five servings from the list of clean fruits and vegetables instead of their dirty dozen, you can reduce your pesticide consumption by up to 92%.

The list varies from year to year, but in general the three groups of fruits and vegetables that have the most pesticides are tree fruits such as apples and peaches, berries like cherries and strawberries, and leafy greens like spinach and kale. All of these fruits and vegetables are vulnerable to a wide variety of insects that find them as tasty as you and I do, so industrial farms protect their crops with large volumes of pesticides which cling to surfaces of fruits and vegetables. Rinsing fruits and vegetables before you eat them can help remove some, but not all, of the pesticide residue, and while you can also peel fruits to avoid pesticides, that frequently means you will be throwing away the most nutritious part of the food. In the end, the best way to avoid pesticide residue on these types of produce is to buy organic.

Many fruits and vegetables, however, have their own natural and effective defenses against pests. Few insects munch on cruciferous vegetables, which include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and bok choy. Pests also avoid pungent vegetables like onions and garlic, which means these vegetables do not require high levels of pesticides to grow. Also safer are those fruits and vegetables with thick skins that prevent pesticides from reaching the edible portion of the fruit. These include pineapples, avocados, mangoes, watermelons, and bananas.

Environmental Footprint

Another consideration when buying produce is the environmental footprint of the farms where it’s grown. Industrial farms use large amounts of fertilizer to produce the highest quantity of food possible, which leaves behind a colossal environmental footprint. Phosphorus, a main component of fertilizer, is a finite resource and is collected in environmentally damaging mining operations. Also, the addition of large amounts of phosphorus and nitrogen, another main component of fertilizer, can wreak havoc on the balance of natural ecosystems. Industrial farms are especially reliant on fertilizers because non-sustainable farming methods quickly leach all nutrients from the soil.

Bananas use the most fertilizer per acre among crops in the U.S., followed closely by sugar beets and citrus trees, so buy these foods from organic, sustainable farms to help reduce the environmental impact caused by industrial farms. Food like beans and peas are much better at extracting nutrients from the environment, so they require less fertilizer and have a much smaller environmental impact.

What’s In Season?

Most of us are used to grocery store staples being available year round, but of course fruits and vegetable have their own schedules that vary by location and season. Organic produce will be cheaper and more plentiful when it’s in season, so learn what’s available in your area and shop accordingly. Shopping local has other benefits too: not only will you be reducing the amount of energy used to transport food to your table, but you’ll also be supporting small, sustainable farms.

Twelve fruits and vegetables you should buy organic to avoid pesticide residue (from the EWG’s 2010 list):

1. Apples
2. Celery
3. Strawberries
4. Peaches
5. Spinach
6. Nectarines (imported)
7. Grapes (imported)
8. Sweet bell peppers
9. Potatoes
10. Blueberries
11. Lettuce
12. Kale/collard Greens

And the fifteen cleanest fruits and vegetables:

1. Onions
2. Sweet Corn
3. Pineapples
4. Avocado
5. Asparagus
6. Sweet peas
7. Mangoes
8. Eggplant
9. Cantaloupe (domestic)
10. Kiwi
11. Cabbage
12. Watermelon
13. Sweet potatoes
14. Grapefruit
15. Mushrooms


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