Everybody, it seems, needs more than just one shopping list these days. In addition to the piece of paper on which you’ve scribbled “milk, eggs, and garlic,” you also need a sustainable-fish list, telling you which fish are the most environmentally friendly to buy, and a healthy-produce list, reminding you which produce you really should buy organic and which you can just buy from any (hopefully local) vendor.
Most folks buy organic to avoid pesticides, but if you’re also buying local, you’re getting fresher (and generally tastier) food. And yes, the science is finally in: Organic food really is more nutritious than conventional.
So we’ve cobbled together a visual shopping guide, using info from the Environmental Working Group, the Organic Center, the Organic Consumers Association, and Cindy Burke’s lengthier (but still skinny) book on the matter, To Buy or Not to Buy Organic. We hope this produce guide proves useful in the store — especially since it can occasionally be tough to find shopping guides online.
In addition, if you’re buying animal products, Burke says you should really consider buying only organic. Why? Because chemical residues concentrate in animal fats, and the fattier an item — say, cheese — the more likely it is to be contaminated.
The first item on this list — peaches — has the highest occurrence of pesticides when grown conventionally. The second item (apples) has the next highest occurrence. And so on. The list comes from the Environmental Working Group.
As Cindy Burke writes in To Buy or Not to Buy Organic, “Peaches are one of the fruits most likely to contain multiple pesticide residues after harvest.” But if you like canned peaches, you can buy them non-organic.
Kids eat a ton of apples, which makes this everyday fruit an organic essential.
Sweet bell peppers
Burke writes, “Conventionally grown peppers are highly likely to contain pesticide residues.”
Out of all the conventionally grown veggies out there, Burke says that non-organic celery is the vegetable most likely to contain pesticide residues. Blame it on the plant’s tendency to absorb pretty much everything.
All stone fruits tend to be high in pesticide residue if conventionally grown. Kids especially like nectarines (no fuzz like peaches), so buy organic.
One of the most delicate and finicky fruit crops around, strawberries have traditionally been dosed with all kinds of chemicals to prevent mildew, decay, and the like. Please, please, only buy organic strawberries.
Cherries are kind of like the strawberries of trees — dainty and fragile. And, like all stone fruits, they’re often heavily sprayed. It can be tough to find organic cherries, but if you do, snap them up. Otherwise, canned and bottled cherries are an OK second choice.
As Burke points out, leafy greens grow close to the ground — and their nooks and crannies hide chemical residues easily. And we tend to eat lettuce raw with just the barest of washings. So buy organic.
Burke: “Imported grapes are fumigated with methyl bromide, a highly toxic and dangerous ozone-depleting chemical.” Skip ‘em.
Like apples, pears retain high amounts of pesticide residue.
See Lettuce, above. Little green leaves close to the ground like residue.
Potatoes in general are likely to contain multiple pesticide residues, but Burke points out that Russet potatoes (the kind used by McDonald’s for its French fries) tend to be very high in residue. If you can’t find organic potatoes but still want spuds, skip the Russets.
Fun fact from Burke: “Carrots are so good at absorbing heavy metals from soil, they are sometimes grown as a throwaway crop to rid a field of lead or arsenic contamination.” Let’s hope those carrots actually do get thrown away, shall we?
Green beans, says Burke, get the full meal deal: multiple sprayings of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
See Sweet bell peppers, above.
Conventionally grown cucumbers get dosed with highly toxic organo-phosphate pesticides.
If you can’t find certified-organic raspberries, buy berries labeled pesticide- or fungicide-free. And because berries are so squashable, always try to buy local berries — they’re cheaper, fresher, and tastier.
Plums are lowest on the stone-fruit list for pesticide residues — but that doesn’t mean they’re clean.
If you’re just going to juice your oranges, you can probably get by with conventional ones. But if you’re planning to use the peel in any way (including your kids sucking on orange slices), buy organic, as the peel is where most residues hang out.
Burke says that grapes grown in the U.S. typically test low on the pesticide-o-meter, but if you’re giving those grapes to kids, buy organic.
On the next page is the list of 20 items that have the fewest pesticide residues.
Culinate’s features address the practical challenges and joys of food.
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