One topic that didn’t make the list for Wednesday’s Hot Topics webinar, but that frequently comes up during our live workshops is organic food. Specifically, if organic food is worth the extra cost.

My full answer to that question is complex and lengthy, and involves my personal opinions. Maybe someday I’ll write that post. (Spoiler alert: Yes, I think organic is worth the extra cost; not necessarily for individual health, but for the future of our planet). In the meantime, I wanted to share with you a resource that many people find helpful when making the decision between organically-grown, and conventionally-grown fruits & vegetables: lists produced by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) known as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15.

First, let’s quickly define conventional vs organic as it relates to produce:

Conventional: Grown with the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides to promote growth and control disease.

Organic: Grown without the use of fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Organic agriculture relies instead on more natural approaches to discourage pests, weeds, and plant diseases, such as compost, insects, mulch, and crop rotation. For produce to be labeled and sold as organic, it must come from a certified organic farm, one that has passed an organic certification test and paid the certification fee.

Back to the lists. Each year, the EWG conducts research and compiles lists related to pesticide residue found on fruits and vegetables. The “Dirty Dozen” is a list of the 12 fruits/vegetables that typically have the highest concentration of the pesticide residue. The number one top offender on that list for 2016? Strawberries. Most of the fruits/veggies on the Dirty Dozen are those with similarly thin skin, like peaches, tomatoes, and grapes. You’ll notice that there are actually 14 fruits/vegetables on the list; 12 numbered, plus 2 extras. Hot peppers and kale/collard greens were recently added as “plus” additions to the Dirty Dozen. They don’t have the most pesticide residue, but they have the worst kind of pesticide residue, a type shown to be particularly harmful to human health.

Alternatively, the “Clean 15” is a list of the 15 fruits/vegetables that typically have the least amount of pesticide residue. These are often, but not always, thicker skinned fruits/veggies that involve peeling the skin or husk before eating; produce such avocados, sweet corn, and pineapples. 

So, if you are on a limited food budget, but you’re interested in buying organic produce, you can use these lists to prioritize your spending. It might be wise to prioritize spending money on organic versions of fruits/veggies that are on the Dirty Dozen. Again, those are the fruits/veggies with the highest level, or most harmful, pesticide residue. Then you can save your money by buying conventionally grown fruits/veggies that fall on the Clean 15. Buying organic versions of produce on the Clean 15 list will still support organic production methods, but you won’t get as much of a difference in pesticide residue versus their conventional counterpart.

Two final notes:

  1. Keep in mind that eating fruits and vegetables, regardless of how they are grown, is better than not eating fruits and vegetables. If you can’t afford organic versions of Dirty Dozen fruits/vegetables, that doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely. Research that looks at overall level of fruit and vegetable consumption in relation to disease risk rarely makes the distinction between convention and organic produce, and yet still shows significant health benefits to eating fruits and vegetables.
  2. Washing your fruits and vegetables can eliminate much, although not all, of the pesticide residue, so don’t be lazy and skip this step! Fancy commercial produce washes have not been shown to be more effective than regular water. Just place your produce in a colander and rinse with cold water, using a vegetable brush if needed.

Happy fruit & vegetable eating!


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