The Dirty Dozen: 12 Foods You Should Buy Organic

By: Hayley Sugg

The EWG lists which fruits and vegetables are highest in pesticides to help your organic dollars go further.


When making your grocery-store game plan, sorting out which fruits and vegetables on your list you should buy organic can be a confusing task. Growing practices can affect produce, allowing the food to absorb pesticides and therefore leaving trace amounts in your meals. Buying organic, however, can limit your exposure to extra pesticides and insecticides.

Each year the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization, releases a Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce that lists fruits and vegetables with the highest and lowest pesticide residues. The produce is tested after it's brought home from the grocery store and washed, just like you would do at home.

At EatingWell, we encourage readers to eat more fruit and vegetables, whether they're organic or not. If buying many organic foods isn't affordable or feasible for you, then a good strategy may be to buy organic versions of specific produce that ranks among the most heavily contaminated. Conventional foods that are least contaminated can save you some money.

Referencing the EWG's Dirty Dozen list can help you prioritize your shopping and give you peace of mind that you're limiting your family's pesticide exposure. Read below to see the 12 fruits and vegetables that the EWG recommends that you buy organic, beginning with the most contaminated food.

1. Strawberries

strawberries

Pictured Recipe: Strawberry Chocolate Sundae

Strawberries remain atop the list as the most pesticide-contaminated food. According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 90 percent of the strawberries sampled tested positive for two or more pesticides. If you're concerned about pesticides, this is one time the extra cost may be warranted for peace of mind.

Related: Our Best Sweet Strawberry Recipes

2. Spinach

spinach

Pictured Recipe: Chicken & Spinach Skillet Pasta with Lemon & Parmesan

Spinach has more pesticide residue by weight (remember spinach leaves weigh very little) compared to any other produce tested. Relatively high concentrations of permethrin, a known neurotoxin, were found on many samples.

Spinach is an easy food to buy organic—many grocery stores carry organic spinach and baby spinach in the fresh produce section, as well as frozen organic spinach. Spinach is great in salad, and when it's not as crisp it's wonderful in smoothies and cooked down in pasta dishes and soups.

Related: Our Best Healthy Spinach Recipes

3. Kale

kale chips

Pictured recipe: Air-Fryer Kale Chips

Kale makes the list in 2019 for the first time in 10 years. Over 92 percent of conventional kale samples tested positive for two or more pesticide residues. 2009 was the last year the USDA provided testing data on kale until this year and some samples contained over 18 different pesticide residues. 60 percent of the kale samples tested had traces of DCPA (Dacthal) which is banned in the European Union and classified as a potential human carcinogen by the EPA. 

4.Nectarines

nectarines

Pictured Recipe: Spicy Grilled Shrimp and Nectarine Kabobs

Almost all of the conventional nectarine samples, 94 percent, contained two or more pesticides. One sample even included residue from 15 different pesticides.

Related: Healthy Nectarine Recipes

5. Apples

apples

Pictured Recipe: Apple & Cheddar Side Salad with Mustard Vinaigrette

Detectable pesticide residues were found on 90 percent of conventionally grown apples. A large majority of the samples, 80 percent, contained diphenylamine, a pesticide that's banned in Europe. Apples, like many of the other fruits and vegetables on this list, have a thin peel. The chemicals used in farming can easily pass through the peel to the flesh.

Related: Our Best Healthy Apple Recipes

6. Grapes

grapes

Pictured Recipe: Char-Grilled Red Grapes with Burrata, Fennel Seeds & Basil

The conventional grape samples EWG tested contained an average of five different pesticide residues. More than 96 percent of all samples contained some traceable pesticide residues.

Related: Our Best Healthy Grape Recipes to Try

7. Peaches

peaches

Pictured Recipe: Almond Cookie Tart with Peaches & Berries

Like their cousin the nectarine, almost all of the conventional peach samples, a staggering 99 percent, contained pesticide residues. On average, conventional peaches were found to have residues of four different pesticides.

Related: Our Best Fresh Peach Recipes

8. Cherries

cherries

Pictured Recipe: Cherry-Almond Farro Salad

Conventional cherry samples had an average of five pesticides detected. A third of the cherries tested contained a potentially cancer-causing pesticide that is banned in Europe.

Related: Cherry Dessert Recipes

9. Pears

pears

Pictured Recipe: Hasselback Pear Cake

Samples of conventionally grown pears were found to contain several pesticides in high concentrations, including fungicides and insecticides. Over half of the pear samples tested had residue from five or more pesticides.

Related: Healthy Pear Recipes

10. Tomatoes

tomatoes

Pictured Recipe: Eggs in Tomato Sauce with Chickpeas & Spinach

The average conventionally grown tomato tested positive for nearly four types of pesticides. One sample even contained 15 various pesticides and breakdown products.

It's easy to find organic canned tomatoes and tomato products, as well, which may be a more affordable way to enjoy organic tomatoes.

Related: Our Best Tomato Recipes

11. Celery

celery

Pictured Recipe: Celery & Parmesan Minestrone

Pesticides were found to be in more than 95 percent of conventional celery samples. Thirteen different pesticides were detected on one celery sample.

Related: Healthy Celery Recipes

12. Potatoes

potatoes

Pictured Recipe: Hasselback Potatoes with Cheese

By weight, conventional potatoes have more pesticide residues than any other crop tested by the Environmental Working Group. One pesticide, which has been reported to negatively impact the central nervous system, made up the bulk of the residues detected.

Related: Potato Side Dish Recipes

 

Bonus: Hot Peppers

hot peppers

Pictured Recipe: Tangy Pepper Salad

Although they usually only list 12 fruits and vegetables on the Dirty Dozen list, this year the Environmental Working Group chose to add hot peppers as an extra warning. During testing, nearly three-fourths of hot peppers were found to contain trace residues from highly toxic pesticides.

Related: The Best Way to Preserve Hot Peppers

Should I only buy organic fruits and vegetables?

You don't have to make over your grocery list overnight and begin buying only organic produce. We recognize that organic produce is often more expensive the conventional produce. Instead, you should pick and choose where to put your dollars. This list should be taken as a guide for making healthier choices. There's no wrong way to use this list, whether that's choosing to buy organic tomato sauce or seeking out organic apple growers near you.

If you're wondering which foods are on the opposite end of the spectrum and have the least amount of pesticides, check out the Environmental Working Group's Clean 15 list.

WATCH: Organic vs Nonorganic Produce: Which to buy?

Don't Miss:
Why Buy Organic? 7 Questions About Organics Answered
15 Foods You Don't Need to Buy Organic
What Does "Natural" on Your Food Label Mean?