Which foods should we buy organic?



The Environmental Protection Agency reports that the majority of pesticides now in use are probable or possible cancer causes. Studies of farm workers who work with pesticides suggest a link between pesticide use and brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease, multiple myeloma, leukemia, lymphoma and cancers of the stomach and prostate.1 

The question remains, however, does the low level of pesticides remaining on our food present much of a risk? Some scientists argue that the extremely low level of pesticide residue remaining on produce is insignificant and that there are naturally occurring toxins in all natural foods that are more significant. The large amount of studies performed on the typical pesticide treated produce have demonstrated that consumption of produce, whether organic or not, is related to lower rates of cancer and increased disease protection. The health benefits of eating phytochemical rich produce greatly outweigh any risk pesticide residues might pose. Certainly, it is better to eat fruits and vegetables grown and harvested using pesticides than to not eat them at all, but it is also wise to minimize our pesticide exposure. 

Environmental concerns

When we buy organic, we minimize our pesticide exposure, and we are also minimizing the amount of these pesticides that our environment is exposed to. Organic farming is clearly the more environmentally-friendly choice. According to the USDA, organic farming “integrat[es] cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.” Although organic cropland acreage in the U.S. has increased five-fold since 1995, organic cropland still accounts for only 0.57% of total cropland. Supporting organic agriculture will increase the demand for organic produce and decrease the percentage of farmland (and farm workers) exposed to potentially harmful agricultural chemicals.

Nutritional benefits

Organic produce usually has more nutrients – especially minerals and antioxidant nutrients – than conventional produce.  Organic apples, plums, blueberries, grapes, strawberries, and corn have all been shown to have higher antioxidant capacities than their conventional counterparts. Organic strawberries were even found to have more anti-cancer activity than conventional strawberries! Scientists have theorized that when the plants are grown without pesticides, they are forced to deal with the stress of insects, which causes them to produce more antioxidant compounds, which are beneficial to humans.4,5 

The Environmental Working Group provides lists of produce called the ‘Dirty Dozen’ (highest in pesticides) and the ‘Clean 15’ (lowest in pesticides). These are their most recent lists.3   


Highest in pesticides – buy organic if possible:

 1. Celery

 2. Peaches

 3. Strawberries

 4. Apples

 5. Blueberries

 6. Nectarines

 7. Bell Peppers

 8. Spinach

 9. Kale

10. Cherries

11. Potatoes

12. Grapes (imported)

Peaches have the most pesticide residue of all fruits – 97% of conventional peaches test positive for pesticides, and as many as 53 different pesticides can be found on peaches. The most pesticide-laden vegetables are celery and bell peppers. Sixty-four different pesticides were found on bell peppers. Imported produce is also more likely to contain higher levels of pesticides.2,3 Choosing to buy these fruits and vegetables organically grown will help to protect us against the possible risks of pesticide exposure. If you do buy the conventional versions of these foods, it is best to wash them with soap and remove the skin before eating them.


Lowest in pesticides – buy either organic or conventional:

 1. Onion

 2. Avocado

 3. Sweet corn

 4. Pineapple

 5. Mango

 6. Sweet peas

 7. Asparagus

 8. Kiwi

 9. Cabbage

10. Eggplant

11. Cantaloupe

12. Watermelon

13. Grapefruit

14. Sweet potato

15. Honeydew melon


Buying organic is a wise choice – organic foods taste better, and organic agriculture protects farmers and our environment.



1. Sanderson WT et al Environ Res. 1997;74 (2): 133-144. 

Zahm SH, Blair A. Am J Ind Med 1993;24(6): 753-766.

Brown TP et al. Environ Health Perspect 114:156–164 (2006).

2. Reynolds JD. J Land Use Environ Law, 1997;13(1). 

Whitford F et al. Purdue Univ Coop Ext Serv p22, 1/17/05

3. http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php , http://www.foodnews.org/methodology.php, http://www.foodnews.org/sneak/EWG-shoppers-guide.pdf

4. .Grinder-Pederson L et al. J Agric Food Chem 2003; 51(19): 5671-5676.

Lairon D. Agron. Sustain. Dev.30 (2010) 33-41

5. Olsson ME et al. J Agric Food Chem. 2006 Feb 22;54(4):1248-55.

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Comments (18) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Marsha - April 30, 2010 10:01 AM

By what percentage do you reduce the risk of pesticide consumption when you peel the fruit or vegetable? Does this help, or do the pesticides penetrate into the fruit/vegetable?


Geoffrey Levens, L.Ac - April 30, 2010 11:11 AM

I totally agree with everything above and just want to add one thing. Unfortunately, it has become painfully obvious that our government/legislators do not listen to what we as a nation want. Because of this, the most effective way to "vote" is with your consumer dollars. By "voting" organic as often as you can (and can afford) you are making a statement about your priorities where it will be heard.

Another reason this is all so important is that it is not just the ag workers who are getting exposed to them and having increased risk to the diseases mentioned in Dr. Fuhrman's posting. Pesticides being used get washed into rivers and streams and soak down into the water table. We end up drinking them in our tap water, both municipal and well water.

Theresa A - April 30, 2010 11:21 AM

What about broccoli? kale? Collards? Leeks?

Emily Boller - April 30, 2010 2:49 PM

Great resource to print out and keep handy for reference. Thanks.

Don Stewart - April 30, 2010 3:06 PM

Organic Agriculture (properly executed) has been shown to sequester huge amounts of carbon. Yields equal conventional agriculture in years with plenty of water, and significantly exceed conventional agriculture in years of drought. Organic production relies on the infrequent application of biologically derived pesticides rather than synthetic and systemically toxic compounds and the maintenance of soil ecology and organic matter through cover crops, green manures, crop rotation, and composting. (1)

Those who claim that toxins made by plants far outweigh any toxins applied by man miss one crucial point: humans evolved eating the toxins made by plants. We did not evolve eating even small amounts of the toxins made by chemists. I expect that we are quite well adapted to plant toxins, and even make good use of some of them (such as the sulfur compounds in crucifers and allium). There is no reason to believe that we are adapted to even small amounts of the toxins made by chemists.

(1) State of the World: 2010 page 50-51

Deana Ferreri - April 30, 2010 4:09 PM

You can view EWG's full list of produce here: http://www.foodnews.org/fulllist.php

Note - I'm not sure if this has been updated for 2010 yet - these might be their 2009 results.

Paul - April 30, 2010 5:20 PM

expsoure doesn't equal risk. Any risk/benefit equations on eating conventional vs. organic has to include cost, something not included in this article. Conventional kale where I live raised in the US is 70cents per pound and at the top of Dr. Fuhrman's MANDI list. It's organic equivalent is over $5.00 per pound, over 7 times the price. Do I get over 7 times the protection if I go to Whole Paycheck to buy "organic" kale? What are the residual risks of organic kale? Fewer pesticides might mean more spoilage, more natural pesticides as plants generate toxins to retard pests. And which organic green are you going to consume if you don't eat the kale, collards or cheesecake? Individual human behavior and comparative risk and cost are the important factors left out of the equation here. For me, conventional kale looks better than organic substitute # 3, esp if I can remove or clean whatever pesticide residual remains on the leaf. I buy organic when it's practical and cost effective. Nobody should be paying 7 times as much for unquantified and possibly greater risks from organic produce.

Admit that comparative risk is a difficult analysis. But you have to put it all out there to make sure you get what you pay for or don't get (in the case of toxins) what you pay for. Many people just won't eat the kale. And that would be a sad outcome. If they can't afford it, they won't eat it. We are struggling to get Americans to eat more fruits and vegetables. And that's all to the good. The cost differential especially to low income American's has to be factored in to this equation. I hope Dr. Furhman understands that. I know the consumer in the supermarket does.


Jessica L Caneal - April 30, 2010 6:00 PM

Isn't the majority of non-organic corn genetically modified?

Jeane - May 1, 2010 10:27 AM

I get so FRUSTRATED. Unless you live where you have a Whole Foods grocery, (and by the way, if you don't live in Boulder, CO, Colorado Springs, CO or Overland, Kansas,where the Whole Foods Produce is wonderful, I am sure there are others, but all Whole Foods are not equal. I live 60 miles round trip to Scottsdale, AZ store and the produce is often discouraged.) organic produce is hard to find, well lets say organic decent produce is hard to find. I live in the Phoenix area and the stuff grown in AZ doesn't stay in AZ.

But I digress. My FRUSTRATION is first you tell us what to eat for good nutrition, then tell us not to eat it, if we can't get the best there is, so one ends up feeling helpless.

Cindyloo - May 1, 2010 1:35 PM

I do not know for sure about pesticide residue on those greens, but the few times I have purchased non-organic kale I have thrown it out because it tastes so awful. It almost tasted metallic. If anyone has a true farmers market available, I recommend getting greens from your local farmers. I sure miss the one in Austin, TX!

Sara - May 2, 2010 10:32 AM

Jeane- I believe Dr. Fuhrman Has sid that eating conventional vegetables is far better than not eating vegetables. Studies were done on regular produce. I eat regular kale.

Jeane - May 2, 2010 5:55 PM

Sara, it is easily becoming fearful to eat. Something is wrong with practically everything that is available to everyday people, ie, not rich, not available etc.

Sarah - May 2, 2010 9:07 PM

That must be frustrating indeed. :( However, I have heard doctors (I think Dr. Fuhrman might be one, but I'm not sure) say they have patients who have overcome disease from eating all conventional produce. So, pesticides or not, you're still getting vital nutrients when eating high-nutrient foods. Also, I've read something about the fiber in these foods soaking in the pesticides so that you yourself end up not absorbing as much of the pesticide... not entirely sure on that one though! There are also online organic stores that will ship to you, however, these are probably very costly. Have you looked for an organic coop in your area? Try these sites for help with local organic produce: www.eatwellguide.org, and www.localharvest.org

Emily Boller - May 3, 2010 9:07 AM

Jeane, There's no need to digress over this topic. It's still health promoting to get greens into your body. Ideally, it would best to eat all organic, but we live in a real world where not everyone has access to all organic produce. For those times you can choose organic, of course, do so, but for those times it's unavailable, continue to eat optimal nutrition. You will still get much benefit! Dr. Fuhrman wrote the following in his Sept. 17, 2009 post:

"Some scientists argue that the extremely low level of pesticide residue remaining on produce is insignificant and that there are naturally occurring toxins in all natural foods that are more significant. The large amount of studies performed on the typical pesticide-treated produce have demonstrated that consumption of produce, whether organic or not, is related to lower rates of cancer and increased disease protection. In short, it is better to eat fruits and vegetables grown and harvested using pesticides than not to eat them at all. The health benefits of eating phytochemically-rich produce greatly outweigh any risks pesticide residues might pose."

Deana Ferreri - May 3, 2010 9:41 AM

Yes, most corn grown in the U.S. is genetically modified, however the vast majority of that corn goes either to animal feed or corn-based ingredients like cornstarch, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Most sweet corn that you'd buy in the produce section is not genetically modified.

Here is some info from the USDA site:

StephenMarkTurner (formerly Steve) - May 3, 2010 11:24 AM

Sadly, cost is a big factor.

At the store this morning, I noticed that conventional bell peppers were four and a half bucks (Canadian = about 98 cents US) a pound. I wouldn't even want to guess what organic ones cost.

I am not paying that, I bought lots of tomatoes instead.


Michael - May 3, 2010 12:47 PM

BJ's sells peppers that are grown hydroponically. I don't know if they are as heavily treated as conventional peppers, but it would seem likely they wouldn't need as much treatment being grown inside. They are reasonably priced and delicious, so I buy them fairly regularly.

Eugenia Bermudez - July 7, 2010 8:35 AM

Wow this is so interesting, I knew I should buy organic fruits but I didn't understand why. I wasn't aware of the benefits of organic products, now I am conscious of why I must buy organic fruits, especially strawberries that I love.

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