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Brian Boyer / Medill

Organically grown mushrooms on sale at the Daley Plaza farmers market.

Avoiding pesticides: When to eat organic and when to not bother

by Brian Boyer
May 22, 2008

The pesticides used in conventional farming are one reason many choose to eat organically grown fruits and vegetables. But eating an all-organic diet on a budget can be difficult, especially with food prices on the rise.

Conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are 3.47 times more likely to contain residues of pesticides than those grown organically, according to a study published in March by The Organic Group, based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

The good news is that many conventionally grown vegetables may be nearly as low in pesticides as their organically grown counterparts. According to a study by the Environmental Working Group, based on USDA data, 44 different fruits and vegetables were tested to determine the number and quantity of pesticides present.

Apples and strawberries in bloom

Apples and strawberries are just now blooming in Illinois. They retain more pesticides than most of the other fruits and vegetables studied, so to avoid pesticides, it's best to eat organic. The other top offenders are peaches, sweet bell peppers, celery and nectarines.

Spinach and potatoes

Conventionally grown spinach and potatoes also tested high in pesticides and are among the "dirty dozen," the fruits and vegetables described by the Environmental Working Group study as "most likely to expose consumers to pesticides."

Onions and asparagus

Onions and asparagus are available right now at farmers markets. Less pesticides are used when growing these vegetables conventionally and thus they have the some of the lowest-pesticide ratings in the Working Group study. This is asparagus season in Illinois, so eat up before all the fresh, local asparagus is gone.

Avocados, bananas, mangoes and pineapple

Avocados, bananas, mangoes and pineapples are all very low in pesticides when conventionally grown according to the Environmental Working Group study. None are grown locally, but a tropical fruit salad made of those plus kiwi is a low-pesticide alternative to one made with conventional grapes, pears, raspberries or cherries.

For the full results of the studies, visit the The Organic Center and Food News from the Environmental Working Group.

Photos from Daley Plaza Farmers Market and Nichols Farm and Orchard, Marengo, Ill., by Brian Boyer / Medill News Service

Fruits and vegetable pesticide ranking

Conventionally grown foods at the top of the list contained the highest quantities of pesticide residue, according to a study by the Environmental Working Group, and based on U.S. Department of Agriculture data. Those at the end of the list contained little to almost none.

  • 1. Peaches
  • 2. Apples
  • 3. Sweet Bell Peppers
  • 4. Celery
  • 5. Nectarines
  • 6. Strawberries
  • 7. Cherries
  • 8. Lettuce
  • 9. Grapes - Imported
  • 10. Pears
  • 11. Spinach
  • 12. Potatoes
  • 13. Carrots
  • 14. Green Beans
  • 15. Hot Peppers
  • 16. Cucumbers
  • 17. Raspberries
  • 18. Plums
  • 19. Oranges
  • 20. Grapes - Domestic
  • 21. Cauliflower
  • 22. Tangerines
  • 23. Mushrooms
  • 24. Cantaloupe
  • 25. Lemon
  • 26. Honeydew Melon
  • 27. Grapefruit
  • 28. Winter Squash
  • 29. Tomatoes
  • 30. Sweet Potatoes
  • 31. Watermelons
  • 32. Blueberries
  • 33. Papaya
  • 34. Eggplant
  • 35. Broccoli
  • 36. Cabbage
  • 37. Bananas
  • 38. Kiwi
  • 39. Asparagus
  • 40. Sweet Peas - Frozen
  • 41. Mango
  • 42. Pineapples
  • 43. Sweet Corn - Frozen
  • 44. Avocado
  • 45. Onions

Derived from data by the Environmental Working Group.