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

You can save money and be healthier 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 |

I try to buy organic when I can, but sometimes it can be difficult to find all the produce I’m looking for in the organic sections at my local grocery stores. And when I do find what I’m looking for, it often comes with a price tag that makes me cringe when I compare it to non-organic options.

Do you have a limited organic selection near you, or do you have trouble affording organic produce? In either case, you can eat healthier and save money by focusing on the 12 most important foods to buy organic. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publishes a handy shopping guide to help you easily answer that question and prioritize your shopping list. Their list 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.[1,2]

Pesticides in particular pose a significant threat to human health. They may be linked to endocrine disorders, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, and depression.[3-5] They could also be particularly be dangerous for children, as they may negatively impact development and could contribute to conditions like autism.

The Dirty Dozen Food List

In 2017, the  foods with the highest amounts of pesticides (the Dirty Dozen foods) include:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Celery
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Hot Pepper

Foods do move in and out of the top 15. For example, the 2015 list included Cucumbers, imported snap peas, potatoes, and a more specific type of tomato (cherry tomatoes). Some of these foods, like grapes and sweet bell peppers, contained multiple different types of pesticides in just one sample.

About 99 percent of apple samples tested had pesticides, as did 98 percent of peaches, and 97 percent of nectarines. Whenever possible, choose organic versions of these foods. Look for sales and comparison shop to find the best prices.

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.

  • Sweet corn
  • Avocados
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Onions
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Asparagus
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangos
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew melon
  • Kiwis
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Grapefruit

As EWG reports, relatively few pesticides were detected on these foods, and tests found low total concentrations of pesticide residues on them.[6]

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.

[1] Br J Nutr. 2014 Sep 14;112(5):794-811.

[2] Ann Intern Med. 2012 Sep 4;157(5):348-66.

[3] Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2014 Apr 8;11(4):3870-93.

[4] Neurology. 2013 May 28;80(22):2035-41.

[5] Curr Microbiol. 2013 Apr;66(4):350-8.

[6] Environmental Working Group. Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce. 2015.

Originally published in 2016, the article is regularly updated.

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