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Basics of Buying Organic Foods

Mar 25, 2021, 14:40 PM by Sarah Washburn, MS, RDN, CSO

Buying organic food shouldn’t be so confusing, but it does require some attention. The United States Department of Agriculture defines produce as organic if it is certified to have grown on soil with no synthetic fertilizer and pesticides for three years prior to harvest. Meats can be labeled “organic” if animals are raised in living conditions that accommodate their natural behavior, are fed 100% organic food and are not given antibiotics or hormones. There is continued debate about whether these laws are adequate enough to protect our health and the health of our planet.

Olive oil and healthy foods

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) created the 2020 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce that includes helpful lists of popular fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide contents. Their analysis included sampling each produce to test the amount and number of pesticides present. For example, multiple samples of kale showed higher pesticide content than other crops, and these samples contained many different pesticides. Prior to EWG’s testing, the produce samples with inedible peels were peeled and those with edible peels were rinsed under cold running water and drained.

Popular lists from the 2020 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce include:

  • The Dirty Dozen list consists of produce with the highest pesticide content ranked from highest to lowest: strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, grapes, peaches, cherries, pears, tomatoes, celery and potatoes. TAKEAWAY: If you would like to decrease your pesticide exposure, you may prefer to buy these foods organic.
  • The Clean Fifteen list consists of produce with the lowest pesticide content ranked from lowest to highest: avocado, sweet corn, pineapple, onions, papaya, sweet peas (frozen), eggplant, asparagus, cauliflower, cantaloupes, broccoli, mushrooms, cabbage, honeydew melon and kiwi. TAKEAWAY: These foods contain less pesticides, so you may be more comfortable buying these foods conventionally-grown.

Whether your fruits and vegetables are organic or conventionally-grown, they are the foundation of a healthy diet. Make these foods the main focus of your meals. Here are a couple of ways to increase your intake of fruits and vegetables:

  1. Start eating vegetables in the morning. Add lots of veggies to your eggs or add cucumbers and a handful of spinach to your toast with almond butter.
  2. Keep cut up fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator for easy access. Add them to soups, sandwiches, salads, meat and whole grain dishes, or snack on them throughout the day.

Finally, enjoy your meals, allow time to “rest and digest” during mealtime and stay as active as medically able.

You can find the complete 2020 Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce at