The organic Top 20

A shopper’s guide

September 15, 2008

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 Organic List (Or, 20 Items You Really Should Buy Organic)

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.

sliced peach

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.

cabernet grapes on a vine

Grapes (imported)
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

Green beans
Green beans, says Burke, get the full meal deal: multiple sprayings of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Hot peppers
See Sweet bell peppers, above.

pickling cucumbers

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.

cabernet grapes on a vine

Grapes (domestic)
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.

Displaying page 1 of 2.

First Page Previous Page 1 2 Next Page Last Page
There are 5 comments on this item
Add a comment
1. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Sep 16, 2008 at 8:58 AM PDT

It is interesting that the pesticide exposure to the workers in these industries was not considered for this article. Banana workers consistently rank as one of the most exposed populations to cancer-causing pesticides. In fact, almost every crop in your “don’t have to buy organic” are tropical fruits, meaning the pesticide exposure happens somewhere out-of-site, out-of-mind. Many chemicals that are banned in this country are still used in other countries on these very fruits that you exempt. There really are no exempt foods because you are just shifting the exposure to somebody else.

2. by Henry Driftmier on Sep 17, 2008 at 11:51 AM PDT

On behalf of The Organic Center, we appreciate Culinate for its coverage of important topics around organic food and farming, health, sustainability and social responsibility.

Also, we appreciate Culinate’s periodic coverage of The Organic Center’s work and resources in organic food and farming research and education.

A Mission of Organic Food and Farming Research and Education
Our mission is to advance peer-reviewed, verifiable scientific research and information behind the human health and environmental benefits of organic food and farming--and to communicate those benefits to society.

Among Our Key Findings

  • Nutrition - “Average levels of 11 key nutrients are 25% higher in organic foods compared to conventional foods, based on 236 scientifically valid comparisons.” Source: New Evidence Confirms the Nutritional Superiority of Plant-based Organic Foods, State of Science Review, March 2008.
  • Antioxidants - “Eating organic produce and organic processed fruits and vegetables will increase your antioxidant intake by about 30 percent over conventionally grown produce.” Source: Elevating Antioxidant Levels in Food through Organic Farming and Food Processing, State of Science Review, January 2005.
  • Taste – “Organic produce is often judged tastier…than conventional produce. Organic apples store better and are tastier than conventional apples.” Source: “Do Organic Fruits and Vegetables Taste Better than Conventional Fruits and Vegetables, State of Science Review, December 2006.
  • Pesticides - “The average child in America is exposed to five pesticides daily in their food and drinking water. In fact, switching to an organic diet for just five days virtually eliminates any sign of exposure to organophosphate insecticides among school-age children.” Source: Successes and Lost Opportunities to Reduce Children’s Exposure to Pesticides Since the Mid-1990s,” Critical Issues Report, August 2006.
  • Energy - “Organic corn production requires 30 percent less energy per bushel harvested, compared to conventional agriculture.” Source: Impacts of Organic Farming on the Efficiency of Energy Use in Agriculture, State of Science Review, September 2006.

Thank you again and yours in health,

Henry Driftmier
Research Associate
The Organic Center

3. by anonymous on Sep 18, 2008 at 7:18 AM PDT

I am concerned that non-organic produce that has low pesticide residue is recommended. Even though such crops may not be hazardous for one to consume, the pesticides are hazardous to the environment. Organic isn’t just about healthy eating, it’s about protecting the soil and water and wildlife.

4. by Caroline Cummins on Sep 18, 2008 at 12:31 PM PDT

Rebecca T., anonymous: We’re not recommending eating produce that may be low in pesticides while still poisoning farmworkers. We’re just offering more information — such as the fact that low pesticide residues may be due to various factors (thick skins in the case of tropical fruits, natural pesticide resistance in the case of alliums). The shopping choice is up to you.

You may also want to read this recent article on Slate about how dangerous organic farms might really be.

5. by Meredith on Mar 7, 2009 at 10:17 PM PST

The Monterey Bay Aquarium has put their Seafood Watch list into an iPhone application. It would be very cool if you guys could put your Organic Top 20 list, or a guide like Cindy Burke has in the back of her book into an iPhone application. Have you given that any thought? Thanks.

Add a comment

Think before you type

Culinate welcomes comments that are on-topic, clean, and courteous. For the benefit of the community we reserve the right to delete comments that contain advertising, personal attacks, profanity, or which are thinly disguised attempts to promote another website.

Please enter your comment

Format: Bare URLs are automatically linked; use this style: [ "place text to be linked here"] for prettier links. You may specify *bold* or _italic_ text. No HTML please.

Please identify yourself

Not a member? Sign up!

Please prove that you’re not a computer

Culinate 8

Kale in the raw

Eight versions of kale salad

Eight ways to spin everyone’s favorite salad.

Graze: Bites from the Site
First Person

The secret sharer

A father’s legacy

The Culinate Interview

Mollie Katzen

The vegetarian-cooking pioneer


Down South

Barbecue, tamales, cocktails, and more

Local Flavors

A winter romesco sauce

Good on everything

Editor’s Choice