15 Organic Fruits & Veggies That Aren’t Worth Paying More For

I love tomatoes. I don’t think many people will argue with me when I say there is nothing better than a fresh-picked home-grown ‘mater.

I love them so much I usually grow tomatoes in the backyard every summer. However, for some stupid reason, this year I just never got around to it.

Anyway, the other day I was picking up a bunch of fruits and vegetables at my local grocery store and, of course, tomatoes were on my list.

Grocery store tomatoes can be such a tease. I find the grocery store ‘maters to always be visually appealing, perfectly round with a nice red color, but every time I bite into one I am terribly disappointed by the lack of flavor. In fact, they are practically tasteless – especially when compared to the home-grown ones.

For that reason – and with no home-grown tomatoes waiting for me at home – I briefly considered picking up some organic tomatoes. That is, until I noticed that the price premium being commanded by the organics was almost 100 percent over the non-organic varieties.

Outrageous? I definitely thought so; tomatoes are expensive enough without the added organic premium.

According to Mint, organic produce costs so much more because today’s large conventional farms enjoy economies of scale and subsidies that smaller organic farms can’t exploit.

So what’s driving the market? Well, when it comes to fruits and veggies most people buy organics to avoid pesticides that farmers use on their crops to increase yields. In the United States, any produce certified as “organic” must be grown without most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.

The thing is, when it comes to tainted fruits and vegetables, not all conventionally farmed produce is created equally. It turns out that many non-organic fruits and vegetables are grown with significantly lower pesticide loads than others, which suggests some organic fruits and vegetables may not be worth those steep price premiums.

So which non-organic fruits and veggies are typically grown with the lowest pesticide loads?

A non-profit consumer organization known as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) analyzed pesticide test data gleaned from nearly 100,000 reports conducted by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Food and Drug Administration. From that data they identified the 15 cleanest fruits and vegetables, which they call the “Clean 15.” In order, they are:

1. Onions
2. Avocados
3. Sweet Corn
4. Pineapple
5. Mangoes
6. Sweet Peas
7. Asparagus
8. Kiwis
9. Cabbage
10. Eggplant
11. Cantaloupe
12. Watermelon
13. Grapefruit
14. Sweet Potatoes
15. Honeydew Melons

You can download their latest report here.

The take-away here is that for those who worry about pesticides on their fruits and veggies, but are trying to stay within the bounds of a tight grocery budget, it makes little sense to pay the extra money for the organically grown varieties listed above.

Instead, buy the conventionally grown varieties and make sure you wash them well. That will free up your money to buy organic produce with the highest pesticide loads that EWG has identified from their “Dirty Dozen” list. Those 12 items are, in order: celery, peaches, strawberries, apples, blueberries, nectarines, bell peppers, spinach, cherries, collard greens, potatoes, and imported grapes.

I know what you’re thinking: Hey, Len, tomatoes didn’t make either of those lists!

You’re right, which is why I will continue to buy the beautiful-but-boring non-organic ones. Well, that is until I can grow some of my own again next summer. ;-)

50 comments to 15 Organic Fruits & Veggies That Aren’t Worth Paying More For

  • I agree, there is no comparison to homegrown! We have some in our garden right now (sorry to rub it in) that aren’t ripe yet but should be soon. Nobody likes pesticides in their food, but sometimes the prices of the organic stuff are so much more that I decide that I’ll just take my chances with the pesticides. Good to know that at least 15 items in my cart are relatively pesticide free!

  • Store bought beefsteak tomatoes are terrible. You can usually save money and get lot more flavor if you buy Roma tomatoes instead. Some people don’t like Romas because they are small and oblong. But, if you slice them lengthwise, they are great on a burger or sandwich.

  • Using a fruit and veggie wash, like FIT, will also wash off the waxiness as well as some of the pesticides. It’s usually found on the lower shelves of the veggie bins.

    As for the dirty dozen list, did you notice they are all thin-skinned fruits or leafy veggies? Maybe the key is to grow your own thin-skinned fruits and vegetables and buy the rest at the store (non-organic of course.)

  • Len if you love tomatoes (me too) and like to make sauces and other recipes with tomatoes the BEST ones are Italian D.O.P. certified San Marzanos like these from Cento:
    http://www.cento.com/sanmarzano.html

    Where I buy them they’re $8 for 28oz can but worth every penny in taste. The non D.O.P tomatoes don’t even come close.

    • @Kimberly: I feel the exact same way! And I’m especially glad corn wasn’t on the Dirty Dozen list.
      @HopeToProsper: Yep, Bret. I do occasionally use romas on burgers (and cut them sideways too). However, sometimes I find they are coated in wax to make them more visually appealing, and I find that to be a bit of a turn off.
      @LittleHouse: Thanks for the tip on removing the wax! So I assume you are a proponent of commercial veggie washes like Fit? You know, last week’s post I did on alternative uses for vinegar and baking soda (among other things) mentioned that those items could also be used as a produce wash. BTW, the report did mention that thin skin produce was more susceptible to contamination.
      @Susan: You know me, Susan – I am 100% Italian. Tomatoes are one of our four basic food groups. ;-) Did you notice you can get a whole case of 28 oz cans from them for $3.50 a can at the website you linked to? I may just do that! Thanks for the tip! :-)

  • Len, do you have a nearby farmer’s market? I find these to be a good alternative to the grocery store organic fruits and vegetables.

    • I certainly do! There is one just down the road from me that is held every Wednesday from 4 to 8 pm. The prices are definitely cheaper there. (One has to be careful though because not all of the produce sold there is organic.)

  • Jessica

    I always buy organic celery because of the horror stories I’ve heard about the amount of pesticides that farmers use to grow it. But that is the only organic vegie I buy.

  • I buy organic simply because they taste better. Tomatoes that are too round, too red, and too perfect are watery and tasteless

    Heirlooms are the best.. totally misshapen and a REAL tomato to boot

    • @Jessica: I think organic celery is among the worst-looking of organic produce I’ve seen. But if the real stuff is as bad as you’ve heard, maybe I should try it.
      @Everyday: I just find it criminal that a lot of folks who grew up in the last twenty years or so have never really experienced the joys of a REAL tomato. So many of them only know what they’ve tasted from their local supermarket.

  • Regarding the “dirty dozen” list, I have seen a few of these before – particularly blueberries, apples, and spinach.

    With respect to apples, that surprised me when I first saw this. My reasoning was that the skin of the apple was probably thick enough to prevent chemicals from entering. Wrong. Often those trees are individually treated with pesticides, leading to high concentrations.

    I have had a tradition the last few years where I have taken my daughter apple picking in the early fall. She seems to love going to the orchard and grabbing apples right off the trees. They really taste better right when pulled off the tree. Anyway, with fall coming up soon, we will have to find a new orchard.

    In any event, when it comes to organic, I do think that for certain, specific fruits and vegetables it’s a good idea to buy organic – but certainly not for most, at least in my household.

  • Crap, most everything we eat is “off the list”, so yes, we’ve been paying an arm and a leg for organic strawberries, blueberries, apples and other fruits that are more prone to pesticide concentrations, etc. People complain about the cost of organic (like I am now), but guess what’s expensive down the road: Diabetes, Cancer, ADHD in your children. That’s expensive. So, you’ve gotta do the research, make a reasonable effort to minimize the crap we take in and live life (some people go way overboard with this stuff and piss away money needlessly, but there’s certainly benefit in taking reasonable precautions).

    • @WiseSquirrel: Very interesting about the apples. It kind of makes you second guess the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” (I was considering a joke here about organic acorns, but I figured that was too easy – LOL!)
      @Darwin: I know what you mean. Life seems to be a never-ending series of trade studies. I think the trade to buy or not buy organic produce is among the more important ones. Personally, I will not be buying any organics off the Clean 15 list. But I love strawberries too, and I may start buying them organic now that I know they are near the top of the “dirty dozen” list.

  • Thanks for the helpful list! I frequently have a conflict between saving money, avoiding pesticides, and choosing the freshest looking produce. I will continue to buy the hothouse tomatoes that taste pretty good but aren’t organic, as well as the organic strawberries (that have more flavor than the conventional ones IMO).

    BTW, I have retweeted this and posted to my Global Asset Strategist Facebook page.

  • Jenna

    Also, fees to become “organically certified” tend to be way too expense for small farmers that already use organic and sustainable practices. So I second @Bucksome Boomer comment about checking out Farmers Markets.

  • Ashley

    Len,We buy mostly organic produce. we are members of a local food co-op and get a discount, also, shop around at local stores that also carry organic. Organic tastes better! Sweet potatoes are definitely better tasting. It’s worth the cost to get more nutrition in your food. I usually can find pretty good celery. I know some organic celery is not very good.

  • Growing your own fruits and veggies can be a fun way to save some cash. Even if you are in a condo or apartment, you could still buy some small planters or potted plants (they even have small potted strawberry plants nowadays!). I am especially weary of oversized fruits and vegetables I find at the grocery store because my mind immediately thinks “genetically modified”. It is usually the oversized fruits and vegetables that have the least flavor as well. Even if your own garden or plants do not provide the high yield you were expecting, you still get the satisfaction of growing plants and doing a little gardening which can be quite relaxing.

    • @Ashley: Cool! I bet you end up getting your organics at the same price of non-organic produce offered by the supermarkets. And yeah, the organic celery at my supermarket is extremely bad. Not sure why that is, but I’d love it if someone could tell me.
      @Up: I love growing my own tomatoes in pots in my backyard. I’ve also grown bell peppers, and carrots but I usually have the best success with the tomatoes. A couple of plants tend to give me five or six dozen juicy tomatoes each season. They taste great and I’ll bet they save me close to $100 each summer and early fall, because I don’t have to pay the store prices.

  • Jan Donnellan

    I don’t see carrots on either list. Years ago in the local paper, I read an article saying many farmers plant carrots between their summer and winter crops because they ‘prepared’ the ground for the next season. I can only assume that means the carrots soak up the pesticides. And you can bet they don’t just toss that carrot crop away. Since then I’ve only bought organic carrots.

    • Ewww. If you’re right, that is a very scary thought, Jan.

    • Staci

      That could be possible, but it is more likely that the carrots are used to restore mineral balances in the soil. Farmers use crop rotations to restore the soil between plantings by changing the pH of the soil, returning necessary minerals such as nitrogen, and reducing excessive amounts of other minerals. Carrots also help to loosen up the soil. Of course anything grown with pesticides needs to be washed well, but I wouldn’t think that carrots would soak up that much more pesticides than other vegetables. They should be safe to eat after washing and peeling. I don’t think the FDA would approve of food infused with harmful pesticides that can’t be washed off.

  • Sam

    I agree, organic doesn’t have to be expensive. We have a bit of a garden here.. and I am happy we get some veggies for free.

  • i was told a while ago, that you can buy pesticide free that isnt organic. is that true. they say more steps to be organic.

    • As I understand it, there are many smaller farms out there that can’t afford to pay for the “organic” certification process but still raise their crops without pesticides. Those crops can be labeled as pesticide-free.

  • Andy

    When it comes to preparing soil, it usually refers to growing a specific crop which will alter soil chemistry and improve growth of the target crop. Typically these crops aren’t harvested because it then removes nutrients from the soil and requires adding more fertilizer. When the whole point of soil preparation is to reduce the need for (and expense of) fertilizers.

  • Russ

    Len- What you observed as wax on romas is most likely mineral oil. A fine spray is used to allow them to slide past, over, and under one other in shipment. If not used, their skins pull and tear. The oil washes off easily.

  • to Kimberly: I checked the web site for those 28oz organic tomatoes & the lowest price I could find was $12.00 plus &10.00 shiping. I hope I did something wrong so I can correct it & get thoes tomatoes for $3.50 a case.
    They sound so good. char

  • LO

    RE: Sweet corn

    Non organic sweet corn aka corn-on-the-cob may very well be GMO corn. Buying organic to avoid GMO products is one of THE main reasons I buy organic, the other is pesticides.

  • Remember that there are three categories of labeling organic products:

    100% Organic: Made with 100% organic ingredients

    Organic: Made with at least 95% organic ingredients

    Made With Organic Ingredients: Made with a minimum of 70% organic ingredients with strict restrictions on the remaining 30% including no genetically modified organisms

    Be sure you know what you are paying for.

  • LOS verdaderos vegetales que antaño se preparaban en el fondo del terreno ,siempre llevaron las de ganar en el sabor , supongo que es el tiempo justo que se toma la planta, acendrando los sabores ,y la cultura de la espera hasta que esta lista para la cosecha

    • Len Penzo

      Let’s see, if my Spanish is correct, I think you said: “The actual plant that was harvested in the bottom of the field, always has the upper hand in taste. I guess it’s just time to take the basic unblemished flavors and culture of waiting until it is ready for harvest.” I’ll drink to that!

  • kayumochi

    I buy grass-fed beef and pastured eggs from a local farmer and pay more than I would buying grain-fed beef and regular eggs. Its all about the CLA … well actually there is more to it than that but the point is that it is worth paying more for food sometimes. Michael Pollan urges us to pay more for food but eat less. Solid advice that I follow.

  • Growing your own veggies is insurance for your health and your wallet. We are in a food supply crisis and I hope it leads more and more people to grow their own food.

  • Stu Kerner

    Attn. Tomato lovers: I too miss my home-grown organic beauties. However, I discovered that the closest tomato to home-grown sweetness is the Sunset Campari Tomato. They’re small, greenhouse grown and really tasty, especially if you check the package to make sure that they’re red and ripe.

  • Very good article. I definitely love this site. Continue the good work!

  • Kang

    I am surprised that cabbage is on the clean list. If you don’t use pesticide on the ones you grow in your backyard, it is likely you will find ivory colored fat worms in it.

  • julie

    Len your blog is the best! Thank you! Hey.. I move that Sweet Corn be stricken form this list. Unless organic, corn is likely Monsanto’s genetically modified, insect stomach exploding, round up ready weed resistant kind of corn. I do not eat it, nor should you or your readers. Thanks again- I dig your style…I’ve spent over an hour here…

    List of GMO crops and additives:
    http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/what-is-gmo/

    • Len Penzo

      Thank you, Julie. I’m glad you’re having fun here.

      As for the corn, I think I’m just never going to eat the stuff again. So if you own stock in Green Giant, I suggest you sell it. ;-)

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