The organic Top 20

September 15, 2008

(continued from page 1)

The Non-Organic List (Or, 20 Items You Don’t Need to Buy Organic)

This list is essentially the bottom half of the Environmental Working Group’s pesticide list, which means that the last item on the list — avocadoes — is, when grown conventionally, the cleanest of the bunch for pesticide residues.

Keep in mind two rules of non-organic thumb: Plants in the allium family have natural pesticides in them, so you can generally buy them non-organic. And tropical products (fruit, nuts) are also often grown without chemicals.

For more information, check out the EWG’s methodology and the Organic Consumer Association’s produce rankings.

The same rule applies to lemons as to oranges, above: Buy organic if you’re going to be using the peel, but non-organic if you’re just using the juice.


Honeydew melon
Like other melons, the honeydew’s thick skin is a barrier against most pesticides.

Grapefruit has the lowest detectable residues of any citrus fruit. Still, if you want to use the peel, buy organic.

Winter squash
If you’re going to eat that pumpkin or butternut squash, buy organic. But if you’re just going to use it as decoration or carve it for Halloween, non-organic is fine.


As with berries, good tomatoes are so fragile that buying them locally is the most important consideration. They’ll be fresher and tastier, too.

sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes
Unlike ordinary potatoes, pesticides aren’t used much on sweet potatoes — which makes for a relatively chemical-free crop.


Same rule as for sweet potatoes, above: Chemicals just don’t do well on watermelon crop. Buy local melons for the best taste.

Unlike strawberries and raspberries, blueberries are low in pesticide residues. (The same is true for blackberries.) Buy local for the best flavor.


As Burke writes, “Thick-skinned tropical fruits have little or no pesticide residue after harvest.” So there you go.

Eggplant crops are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides, but they seldom contain residues.

Chemicals don’t work well on broccoli, so they’re not used very much. Lucky you.

With one major exception — Napa cabbage — pesticides are seldom used on cabbage. But if you like Napa, buy it organic.


The banana’s thick skin helps keep pesticides out.

They may have thin skins, but kiwis have very few pesticide residues.


Bugs don’t like asparagus, so farmers hardly ever use pesticides on the crop.

fresh garden peas

Sweet peas
As with eggplant, broccoli, and cabbage, peas (fresh or frozen) consistently test low for pesticide residues.

Like the other tropical fruits on this list, mangoes have a thick-enough skin to keep pesticides out.


Pineapples are as tough as they look — no chemicals here.

corn on the cob

Sweet corn
Both fresh and frozen sweet corn, despite the use of herbicides and pesticides, retain little residue. Buy local and eat as soon as possible for the best taste.


Yet another one of those thick-skinned tropical fruits. Eat away.

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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.

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