Explainer: Is it worth it to buy organic?

  • Image: fruit
    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images

    Many people like the idea of buying organic produce because they believe it’s more nutritious and safer to eat than conventional fruits and veggies that may have been grown with synthetic fertilizers or sprayed with pesticides.
    However, organic foods — which can cost up to 50 percent more than conventional produce — can be out of reach for many Americans.

    Even fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides fall within ranges deemed safe by government agencies, according to the United Fresh Produce Association. But critics say there isn’t enough research on the long-term effects of even low-levels of pesticide exposure, especially on children.

    When trying to make the healthiest choices for your family, how can you know which organic fruits and veggies are worth the price? The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer research group in Washington, D.C., has developed a list ranking pesticide exposure for some of the most popular fruits and vegetables. Click on our selection of fruits and veggies to help decide when you should pick organic and when it’s fine to stick with conventional.

    — Bridget Murray Law

    Sources: Environmental Working Group; Chensheng Lu, Emory University’s School of Public Health; United Fresh Produce Association

  • Fruits

  • Apples

    Image: Apples
    Getty Images stock

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Studies have shown that pesticides pool in the valleys on an apple’s top and bottom.

    They’re also absorbed down through the stem into its core. Among fruits, apples pack the highest level of pesticides overall, according to the Environmental Working Group’s rankings.

    Cut your risk:
    Besides buying organic, you can reduce exposure by coring and cutting out the apple’s top and bottom. Peeling can help too, although much of the fruit’s nutrition and fiber resides in the peel. Washing under tap water and scrubbing with a produce brush removes some, but not all, pesticide residue.

  • Avocados

    Image: Avocado

    Buy organic?
    No. Avocados are protected by thick, tough skins, making them one of the most pesticide-free fruits.

    Cut your risk:
    While avocados have low levels of detectable pesticides, it’s still important to wash the skins under running water before peeling them to get rid of dirt and bacteria. After rinsing, dry the fruit with a clean cloth or paper towel.

  • Bananas

    Image: Bananas
    Carissa Ray  /  msnbc.com

    Buy organic?
    No. Growing up to 30 feet off the ground, protected by tough skins, bananas have one of the lowest pesticide loads of any fruit. Only kiwis, mangos and pineapples claim less pesticide exposure.

    Cut your risk:
    Peel it!

  • Cherries

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Domestic cherries are heavily contaminated with pesticides. Worms love them and orchard growers douse them with pesticides, which collect in their nooks and valleys.

    Cut your risk:
    Wash them in running tap water. There isn’t much more you can do to reduce your risk — besides buying organic.

  • Grapes

    Image: Grapes
    Justin Sullivan  /  Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    No, as long as you buy domestic. Most domestically grown grapes are fine, if washed in running water. Grapes imported during the U.S. off-season tend to register higher levels because international controls on pesticides are often less rigorous than domestic ones.

    Cut your risk:
    Try to avoid buying imported varieties. How to tell? If it’s being sold in winter, it’s likely imported from a summery climate abroad.

  • Nectarines

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Insects love nectarines for their juicy sweetness, so they’re heavily sprayed with pesticides that infiltrate their thin skin.

    Cut your risk:
    Other than washing with a vegetable brush and peeling the skin, there’s little you can do. If you can afford it, go organic.

  • Peaches

    Image: Peaches
    Mark Lennihan  /  AP file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Peaches have very thin skin and are sprayed when they’re young and tiny. As a result, the peach absorbs pesticides as it grows. Among fruits, peaches had the highest likelihood of multiple pesticides on a single sample, according to the Environmental Working Group.

    Cut your risk:
    Washing under running water and peeling will help a bit, but won’t purge the pesticides in the fruit’s flesh. Organic is your best bet on this one.

  • Pears

    Image: Pears
    Liu Jin  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. The pesticide content in pears is almost as high as in apples, but their skin is thinner, so they tend to absorb more of the chemicals directly into the flesh.

    Cut your risk:
    Wash them well with a vegetable brush in running water. Chop out a generous section of the core and the surrounding tissue.

  • Strawberries

    Image: Strawberries
    Mahmud Hams  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Strawberries grow low to the ground, requiring a high pesticide load to keep away bugs that live in the soil.

    Cut your risk:
    Cut out the stalk and core — the entire white part — because strawberries absorb pesticides through the stalk. Be sure to wash them well.

  • Blueberries

    Image: Blueberries
    Jonathan Ernst  /  Reuters file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Researchers say it may be best to buy organic blueberries after finding a link between pesticide residue in children and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. In 2008, detectable concentrations of the pesticide malathion were found in 28 percent of frozen blueberry samples, according to analysis by the U.S. Pesticide Residue Program. By contrast, the insecticide was found in only 4.4 percent of fresh blueberries.

    Cut your risk:
    Gently wash all blueberries, whether fresh or frozen, to rinse away as much pesticide as possible.

  • Vegetables

  • Sweet bell peppers

    Image: Green bell peppers
    Don Ryan  /  AP file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Growers tend to douse peppers with pesticides, and though their skin is hard and thick, it’s oily and is sometimes even waxed. That makes it hard to remove pesticide residue. Peppers have the highest pesticide load of any vegetable, according to the Environmental Working Group. Since the skin is the tasty part of the pepper, organic is best.

    Cut your risk:
    Choose red, yellow and orange peppers, which are more often grown in hothouses than outside. They likely contain less pesticide than green peppers, which are typically grown outdoors.

  • Celery

    Image: Celery
    David Silverman  /  Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    Yes, unless you’re vigilant about preparation and washing. Pesticides concentrate in the bottom of the bunch of celery stalks, where water collects. Among vegetables, celery had the highest of percentage of samples test positive for pesticides, as well as being the most likely to contain multiple pesticides, according to the Environmental Working Group.

    Cut your risk:
    Chop off the bottoms of the celery stalks and wash the leaves and stalks in running water.

  • Broccoli

    Image: Broccoli
    David Silverman  /  Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    No. Along with cabbage, broccoli ranks among vegetables that contain the lowest pesticide levels. It’s grown in cooler weather when pests haven’t yet hit with force.

    Cut your risk:
    Wash broccoli well under running water and cut off the stalks, which may have soaked in pesticides collected in the soil.

  • Lettuce

    Buy organic?
    Yes. They’re ground-huggers that bulk up on pesticide-laden water. They have the third highest pesticide load of any vegetables, according to Environmental Working Group.

    Cut your risk:
    With its bumpy leaves, lettuce is notoriously hard to wash. But it is worth rinsing it under running water to remove any pesticide you can. Removing the outer layers of iceberg lettuce may also somewhat reduce your exposure.

  • Spinach

    Image: Spinach
    Marcio Jose Sanchez  /  AP file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Spinach is a ground-hugger like lettuce and drinks in pesticides through its stalks. Unlike lettuce, you can’t remove its outer layers.

    Cut your risk:
    Rinse thoroughly under running water. This will help get rid of dirt and bacteria, although washing won’t remove the already absorbed pesticides.

  • Potatoes

    Image: Potatoes
    Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images file

    Buy organic?
    Yes. Potatoes grow in or just above the ground, so farmers pour on the chemicals to ensure a harvest. Much of the pesticides are ingested through the potato’s thin skin. Waxing before they are shipped to market only makes the external pesticides harder to remove.

    Cut your risk:
    Peeling, washing potatoes under running water and scrubbing with a clean vegetable brush can help remove some external pesticide residue. But experts advise buying organic potatoes, if you can.

  • Peas

    Buy organic?
    No. Across all vegetables, peas rank among the lowest in pesticide content. They’re protected by pods and attract fewer insect attackers than other vegetables.

    Cut your risk:
    If they’re not shelled, remove them from their pods and rinse them well under running water.


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