By: Alison Dunn Mar 16, 2011

In part one of a series, find out which fruits and veggies are most important to buy organic

One of the biggest buzzwords in nutrition over the past few years has undoubtedly been the word “organic.” But when you head to the grocery store and are faced with a dizzying array of fruits and vegetables that call themselves organic (and some with price tags that make you gasp), how do you choose?

Start by making it a priority, says Laurie Burrows, a registered holistic nutritionist in Oakville and Burlington, Ont. “Organic living is also a philosophy of life. It’s not just about food,” she says. “It is an investment. You only have one body, and since that body is going to take you through your life, you need to invest in it in whatever way you possibly can.”

Why look for organic produce? For starters, produce that is certified organic means the farm on which the produce is grown uses no herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, synthetic fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms (GMO). According to the U.S. Environmental Working Group (EWG), pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems, including nervous system toxicity, cancer, hormone system effects and skin, eye and lung irritation. What’s more, the long-term effects of eating foods grown with pesticides, synthetic fertilizers or GMO are still unknown.

That’s why Burrows recommends choosing organic produce over conventionally-grown produce whenever possible. It can be difficult, though, to jump right in to buying all organic produce. If you’re just starting out or your budget is limited, here are some tips on how to get started.

Ditch the “dirty dozen”

If you only have a limited budget for organic fruits and vegetables, Burrows says your top priority should be to avoid conventionally-grown foods on the EWG’s “dirty dozen” list. The EWG has found these 12 foods to be the ones most laden with chemicals, and by choosing organic versions of these foods, you can almost immediately decrease your toxic load.

The “dirty dozen” includes:

  1. Celery
  2. Peaches
  3. Strawberries
  4. Apples
  5. Blueberries
  6. Nectarines
  7. Sweet Bell Peppers
  8. Spinach
  9. Cherries
  10. Kale/collard greens
  11. Potatoes
  12. Grapes

These 12 foods are the ones that test highest for pesticide use when conventionally grown, so opt for organic versions of these, Burrows recommends. Also, be sure to check the list frequently, as it changes depending on the EWG’s testing procedures; if the EWG finds a food that tests higher in pesticides than any of these, it will move that food higher on the “dirty dozen.”

Burrows also recommends that if you have a particular fruit or vegetable you eat on a daily basis, you should choose organic as well. For example, if you eat bananas every day, choose organic bananas to avoid overloading on toxins due to frequent consumption.

Meet the “clean 15”

If your budget is limited, though, you may not want to pay a premium for every fruit and vegetable you buy. Canada’s Food Guide recommends you eat 7-10 servings of fruit and vegetables a day, and if you can’t afford to make that all organic, which conventionally-grown items have lower levels of pesticides?

That’s where the EWG’s “clean 15” list comes in handy. This is a list of 15 fruits and vegetables that tested lowest for pesticide use. It includes:

  1. Onions
  2. Avocado
  3. Sweet corn (frozen)
  4. Pineapples
  5. Mango
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Asparagus
  8. Kiwi fruit
  9. Cabbage
  10. Eggplant
  11. Cantaloupe
  12. Watermelon
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Sweet potatoes
  15. Honeydew melon

Again, the EWG revises this list if its ongoing testing reveals higher levels of pesticides than in previous years, so be sure to check it often to ensure you’re choosing the right foods.
Want to know more about choosing organic foods? Come back next week for part two of Health Local’s series, “Going organic.”

A journalist with more than 10 years experience, Alison’s work has appeared in a number of top Canadian publications, including glow, Oxygen, Canadian Running and more. She is the former editor of a number of well-respected Canadian and American trade journals and recipient of a Kenneth R. Wilson Gold Award of Excellence in feature article writing. She is a part-time faculty member at Sheridan College’s journalism department, as well as an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.