Cleanest and Dirtiest Produce: When Is It Worth Going Organic?

Eating organic is certainly all the rage. Many Americans believe that organic produce tastes better and is better for you. But going organic takes some commitment. Not only can organic fruits and vegetables be difficult to find, these healthy items usually cost two to three times as much as conventionally-grown produce. So, is going organic really worth it?

The simple answer is yes, if you can afford it. Organic produce is healthier because it's produced without synthetic chemicals, colorings, and preservatives while containing no genetically-modified ingredients. Growers use 2.5 million tons of industrial pesticides each year and research has linked pesticides with a number of health problems, including cancer and birth defects. Organic produce is also more environmentally-friendly because it conserves soil and water quality as well as reduces pollution.

If you can't afford it, there are ways to get the benefits of organic without breaking the bank. All you need to do is shop smart. Certain fruits and vegetables, what the Environmental Working Group (EWG) calls the "Dirty Dozen," are so full of pesticides they're worth buying organic.

1) Apples
2) Celery
3) Sweet bell peppers
4) Peaches
5) Strawberries
6) Imported nectarines
7) Grapes
8) Spinach
9) Lettuce
10) Cucumbers
11) Domestic blueberries
12) Potatoes

Other types of produce are pretty safe whether you buy organic or not. The EWG's so-called "Clean 15" are listed below.

1) Onions
2) Sweet corn
3) Pineapples
4) Avocado
5) Cabbage
6) Sweet peas
7) Asparagus
8) Mangoes
9) Eggplant
10) Kiwi
11) Domestic cantaloupe
12) Sweet potatoes
13) Grapefruit
14) Watermelon
15) Mushrooms


By eating the least-contaminated produce and avoiding the most contaminated, you may be able to reduce your pesticide exposure by as much as 90%, which is pretty significant. Where can you find organic fruits and vegetables? In a growing number of supermarkets, you can find certified organic foods by looking for the sticker that says “USDA Organic.” Organic produce is usually available at farmer’s markets and whole food stores, though there may not be a label since many local farmers operate on such a small scale that the farms can’t afford getting certified by the government. For those with a penchant for gardening, you can also try your hand at growing some of your own produce.

Of course, not everyone can or wants to go organic. According to a 2010 Harris Interactive poll, just 15% of Americans are buying organic, largely because of cost. So, what if you can’t afford organic produce? Go with the conventionally-grown option. Most Americans eat so poorly (consuming more calories from soft drinks than from vegetables), the potential cost of pesticide exposure pales in comparison to the benefits of eating more fruits and vegetables.

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Dr. Carolyn Ross is an internationally known physician, author and speaker on addictions, obesity and eating disorders. She serves as a consultant to The Ranch's eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee, maintains a private practice in Denver, is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating as well as The Joy of Eating Well and also hosts a weekly radio show, The Vital Life. 

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