Organic Foods to Buy: “Clean 15” and “Dirty Dozen” Food Lists

You can save money and feel better about your produce choices by considering the 12 most important foods to buy organic. The Environmental Working Group offers an ideal guide.

a bowl of organic apples

About 99 percent of apple samples tested had pesticides.

© Dave Bredeson |

It can be difficult to find all of the produce you need when shopping in the organic sections at your local grocery store. And when you do find what you need, you might not want to pay the price (sometimes several dollars) for organic vs. non organic. Pesticides and the overall cleanliness of your food is most important, which is where the Dirty Dozen list comes into play.

Jump to: Dirty Dozen | Clean 15

Instead of going all organic, you can refer to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for their handy shopping guide that helps you prioritize the shopping list. Their lists of the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen foods will help you steer clear of those foods laden with the most pesticides and eat the cleanest diet you can.

Why Choose Organic?

Although organically grown foods don’t necessarily have higher nutrient levels, the more important factor is that they don’t contain a lot of harmful chemicals, such as pesticides, herbicides, antibiotics, and more. Research shows that organically grown crops do have significantly lower pesticide residues, as well as lower levels of toxins like cadmium, and choosing organic can lower your exposure to these contaminants.

Pesticides in particular pose a significant threat to human health. They may be linked to endocrine disorders, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and depression. They could also particularly be dangerous for children, as they may negatively impact development.

The Dirty Dozen Food List

In 2021, the  foods with the highest amounts of pesticides (the Dirty Dozen foods) include:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale, collard and mustard greens
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Cherries
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Bell and hot peppers
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes

Foods do move in and out of the top 15. Such as bell peppers and hot peppers, which were tested for the first time since 2012, which now are number 10 on the list. While kale remains in the third spot, it’s now also listed with collard and mustard greens.

Nearly 70% of non-organic fresh produce sold in the U.S. contains residues of potentially harmful pesticides, according to EWG’s latest test results.

The Clean 15 Food List

The EWG also lists the 15 foods with the least amount of pesticides (the Clean Fifteen). If you’re on a budget, buy the non-organic versions of these foods.

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapple
  • Onions
  • Papaya
  • Sweet peas
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Kiwi
  • Cauliflower
  • Mushrooms
  • Honeydew melon
  • Cantaloupe

As EWG reports, relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues on them.

Key findings, according to EWG: “Avocados and sweet corn were the cleanest: only 1 percent of samples showed any detectable pesticides. More than 80 percent of pineapples, papayas, asparagus, onions and cabbage had no pesticide residues. No single fruit sample from the Clean Fifteen tested positive for more than four types of pesticides. Multiple pesticide residues are extremely rare on Clean Fifteen vegetables. Only 5 percent of Clean Fifteen vegetable samples had two or more pesticides.”

For more information, read the full report from the EWG.


Originally published in 2016, the article is regularly updated.

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