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How to buy organic fruits and vegetables

Diana De Cicco is a food editor and writer based in New York City. She has a master's degree from New York University in Food Studies. Her passions are eating, traveling, and eating while traveling.

Organic produce shopping tips

When it comes to your food budget and your family’s health, you have to strike a fine balance between buying organic and buying sensibly. Certainly, buying all organic produce can get pricey, but the good news is not all fruits and vegetables need to be organic for you to eat safely and healthfully. Here are shopping guidelines for both organic and conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables that will help you make the healthiest and most cost-friendly buys.

Woman shopping for organic apples

Avoid the dirty dozen

According to the Environmental Working Group there are 12 fruits and vegetables that should always be purchased organically in order to avoid ingesting pesticides. Known as the "dirty dozen," these fruits and vegetables are ones that are eaten whole or with the skin. Fruits and vegetables that are peeled or have thicker skins have a decreased risk of passing pesticides on to the consumer.

Always buy organic varieties of these 12 fruits and vegetables:

  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Imported Grapes
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Bell Peppers
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Spinach

Another tip: Buy in-season fruits and vegetables, which will likely be locally produced or at least not imported from countries who don't have strict organic standards. In-season fruits and vegetables are also typically cheaper than produce that is shipped in.

Opt for safer salads and greens

A recent report from the nonprofit agency Consumer Reports found almost 40 percent of bagged or packaged salads from 16 brands (including organic varieties) were contaminated with bacteria that is a common indicator of fecal contamination. Packaging puts all produce at a higher risk of contamination (and makes it more expensive compared to unpackaged), so opt for fresh bunches of greens and heads of lettuce as opposed to prewashed or triple-washed packaged greens.

Is your salad safe?

Although the only leafy green on the "dirty dozen" list is spinach, other greens like lettuce, kale and arugula should be purchased organically – and not packaged – because they are frequently contaminated with pesticides. Additionally, tomatoes are another salad ingredient to purchase organically to minimize your exposure to chemicals.

Support your local farmers

If you are purchasing produce from a farmer's market, the best way to determine if it is organic is to ask the vendors, who will likely be the farmers who grew the produce. They will be more than happy to explain how they grow their fruits and vegetables and can let you know if their produce is organic.

Read the labels

When you are buying produce in a grocery store, fresh fruits and vegetables don't come with a nutrition label as you find on packaged foods, but produce does come with a sticker. Although most grocery stores have signs designating organic produce, you can also look at the numbered sticker on the item to make sure you are buying organic.

Here are the meanings behind the numbers:

  • Numbers beginning with 9 are organic
  • Numbers beginning with 8 are genetically engineered produce (GMO)
  • Numbers beginning with any other number (typically 3 or 4) are conventionally grown

Reading labels is important regardless of the type of food you are buying.

Conventionally-grown produce

Fruits and vegetables that have hardy exteriors and are peeled before consumption have a decreased risk of passing pesticides on to you and your family.

Produce you can buy conventionally:

  • Asparagus
  • Avocadoes
  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Corn
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Bananas
  • Kiwi
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Pineapples
  • Peas

Buy as much organic produce as you can afford and certainly opt for organics when buying any of the "dirty dozen." When cost is an issue, though, opt for conventional buys of these 12 fruits and vegetables because they will be the least contaminated.

Wash your produce

Organic and conventionally-grown fruits and vegetables should be washed well before consumption. This even includes the produce you peel; you can transfer bacteria from the outside of a fruit or vegetable to the flesh when you cut it with a knife.

Want more organic food tips? Read on

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