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The organic Top 20

(article, Culinate staff)

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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. 

h3. 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.

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Peaches
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.

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Apples
Kids eat a ton of apples, which makes this everyday fruit an organic essential.

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Sweet bell peppers
Burke writes, "Conventionally grown peppers are highly likely to contain pesticide residues."

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Celery
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.

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Nectarines
All stone fruits tend to be high in pesticide residue if conventionally grown. Kids especially like nectarines (no fuzz like peaches), so buy organic.

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Strawberries
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.

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Cherries
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.

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Lettuce
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.

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Grapes (imported)
Burke: "Imported grapes are fumigated with methyl bromide, a highly toxic and dangerous ozone-depleting chemical." Skip 'em.

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Pears
Like apples, pears retain high amounts of pesticide residue. 

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Spinach
See Lettuce, above. Little green leaves close to the ground like residue.

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Potatoes
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.

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Carrots
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?

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

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Hot peppers
See Sweet bell peppers, above.

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Cucumbers
Conventionally grown cucumbers get dosed with highly toxic organo-phosphate pesticides.

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Raspberries
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.

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Plums
Plums are lowest on the stone-fruit list for pesticide residues — but that doesn't mean they're clean.

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Oranges
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.

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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.

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On the next page is the list of 20 items that have the fewest pesticide residues.

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h3. 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.

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Lemons
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.

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

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bananas
The banana's thick skin helps keep pesticides out.

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

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

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


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

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

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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.

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

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peaches, l


celery, l


strawberries, l


cherries, l


watermelon, l


spinach, l


avocadoes, l


pineapples, l


mangoes, l


papayas, l


bananas, l


cabbage, l


hotpeppers, l


cucumbers, l


plums, l


blueberries, l


asparagus, l


lemons, l


tomatoes, l


oranges, l


bellpeppers, l


eggplants, l


peas, l


reference-image, l


lettuce, l


pears, l


squash, l


broccoli, l


kiwis, l


domesticgrapes, l


importedgrapes, l


grapefruit, l


potatoes, l


corncob, l


sweetpotatoes, l


greenbeans, l


raspberries, l


nectarines, l


honeydew, l


carrots, l