Eating vegetables and fruit, lots of them, is one of the healthiest things you can do. It’s one of the reasons a plant-forward diet is so key to overall wellbeing. The benefits are spectacular—plants are full of vitamins and minerals our bodies rely on, they provide fiber, help our cells function properly, pack in antioxidants and phytochemicals, and much more. We should be eating at least five servings a day, according to a recent study published in Circulation, with a diverse range as the goal. But there’s another factor to consider: how those fruits and veggies are grown.
Do you know where your produce comes from? Why you should care…
To give the big picture, the majority of our produce is grown conventionally, on industrial farms. And while the number of organic farms is steadily climbing, it’s still just a mere 1% of U.S. farmland. Conventional agriculture typically uses pesticides to keep produce production high. The danger here is that pesticides contain chemicals, like glyphosate, that are known endocrine disruptors, and “probably carcinogenic to humans” as reported by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). On the flipside, organic farming skips the chemicals, and in addition, uses processes like composting and natural fertilizers to boost the health of the soil and biodiversity of the ecosystem. All very good things, for your body, the farmers who work the land, and the planet.
There is one downside however: going all organic gets pricey. But does everything you buy have to be organic? Luckily, the answer is no.
How to choose between conventional vs. organic produce
To help guide you, the nonprofit advocacy organization Environmental Working Group releases an annual "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" list using data from the Department of Agriculture and Food and Drug Administration. These annual lists include the types of fruits and vegetables that tend to be grown with the most and least pesticides, based on the latest available data.
Here’s where we insert an important PSA. These lists should be considered resources for where to put your money if you have just so much to spend on produce, not encouragement to avoid any fruit and veggies, even if they’re one of the Dirty Dozen. "The health benefits of a diet rich in fruits and vegetables outweigh the risks of pesticide exposure," the report FAQ tells us. "Eating conventionally grown produce is far better than skipping fruits and vegetables."
The "Dirty Dozen": The most pesticide-contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables
This year, The Washington, D.C., group found that after washing, more than 70% of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contained residues of up to 230 different pesticides or their breakdown products. More than 90% of the samples they gathered from strawberries, apples, cherries, spinach, nectarines and grapes tested positive for residues of two or more pesticides. Kale, collard and mustard greens, hot peppers and bell peppers had the most pesticides. And kale, collard and mustard green samples had up to 21 different pesticides. So, if you’re choosing organic, these deserve your focus.
The "Clean Fifteen": The least pesticide-contaminated conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables
And what about the Clean Fifteen? As you might expect, many of the “cleanest” produce have a substantial peel, husk or shell that you toss before eating, protecting you from consuming chemicals. It’s a good rule of thumb to look for these when buying conventional. In other instances, it may just be how they’re produced that keeps them clean. Whatever the case, it’s a saving grace that makes them low-risk to buy conventionally. Here’s where you can save going conventional:
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas (frozen)
- Honeydew melon
So, knowing this, how should you shop?
If you’re opting for organic at the grocery store, look for a USDA organic label. According to the USDA, that means, it "is certified to have grown on soil that had no prohibited substances applied for three years prior to harvest. Prohibited substances include most synthetic fertilizers and pesticides."
And for more fun, hit a local green market. It’s your opportunity to meet the farmers who are actually growing your food. Ask them questions! Find out what’s seasonal, what’s coming, and ensure that you’re putting your money to something worthwhile.