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Understanding When to Buy Organic

Understanding When to Buy Organic

Eating healthy can be a challenge, but knowing how to make smart choices in the produce department can help.

Ensuring that the foods you eat are safe and as nutritious as possible can be confusing, especially with so many concerns about pesticides and other toxins that can be found in certain items. We all know that eating a balanced diet with lots of fruits and vegetables is the key to good health – and that’s especially important for keeping our immune systems strong during a pandemic. The USDA guidelines suggest that adults need to consume at least two and half cups of vegetables and two servings of fruit every day to get the necessary vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and more that can help keep you healthy. But does good quality produce always have to be organic? You’ll be happy to know that the answer is no.

Farming conditions and trends change from year to year, so it’s difficult to know which products have the highest levels of contaminants. Fortunately, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) – an organization comprised of scientists, researchers and policymakers – compiles an updated report every year using data from the United States Department of Agriculture. Two lists are then compiled from this report: the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15”. Armed with these lists, you can prioritize buying organic items on the Dirty Dozen list, but then save money by buying conventionally grown produce from the Clean 15 list.

The Dirty Dozen for 2020

Nearly 70% of fresh produce grown in the U.S. contains residues of chemical pesticides that are potentially harmful when consumed in high enough quantities. In fact, pesticides may still be detected even after thoroughly washing or peeling the produce. The items on this list (a bonus 13 this year), when grown conventionally, show either a high number of contaminants from the list of 47 that are tested, or a high level of one or more contaminants. These items are all delicious and packed with vitamins and minerals, and are perfectly safe to consume in quantity when you select organic options:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Hot Peppers

Organic produce can be very expensive, especially if you’re buying out of season. Local farmer’s markets are a great place to find reasonably priced, organic, seasonal produce – and you can support local farms at the same time. If you’re shopping in the grocery store, learn more about what’s in season and the best time to buy certain fruits and vegetables with this helpful CUESA Seasonality Chart for Northern California.

The Clean 15 for 2020

The items listed below showed very little or no traces of the 47 pesticides tested. These fruits and vegetables are generally safe to consume in non-organic form during the next year:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet Corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya*
  • Sweet Peas
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Cauliflower
  • Cantaloupe
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Cabbage
  • Honeydew Melon
  • Kiwi

Get the complete EWG report for 2020 to learn more.

Remember that due to farming practices that may change year to year, an item that was on the “Clean 15” list a year or two ago may now be on the “Dirty Dozen” list for 2020. According to Richard Wiles, senior vice president of policy for the EWG, foods like pineapple or sweet corn have a protection defense because of their outer layer of skin, while strawberries, celery and other items with skins that are generally consumed can absorb chemicals more easily.

So, in a world where we have to worry about ingesting harmful chemicals along with our “healthy” fruits and vegetables, it’s good to know that there are resources available to help us make smart and economical produce purchases.

Plant Your Own

Of course, another way to ensure that your produce is free from pesticides is to grow your own! One of the positive changes that have come from the pandemic is the trend towards cooking more meals at home, and a renewed interest in home gardening. If you missed out on the spring planting season, don’t worry – you can plant a fall garden and enjoy your home-grown produce by Thanksgiving. While tomatoes, beans, melons and corn are strictly summer crops, there are many other vegetables that grow very well during the cooler fall and even winter months. If you want to plant seeds, consider arugula, chard, kale, lettuce, carrots, beets, onions, peas and radishes – but plan to get them into the ground before the end of September. If you want to start with seedlings, broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and cabbage are all great options. For more information on planning, planting, and nurturing a fall or winter garden, check out these Northern California tips from Fine Gardening.

*Note that a small amount of papaya and sweet corn (along with summer squash) sold in the U.S. is produced from genetically modified seeds. If you want to avoid genetically modified produce, opt for the organic version of these items.


This article first appeared in the September 2020 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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