The benefits of eating organic foods–from lower pesticide exposure to environmental impact–are well-known. But let’s be honest: Buying organic can be expensive. Budget-conscious consumers can get the most bang for their buck by prioritizing which organic foods to purchase based on the amount of pesticides they’re likely to contain. Read on to find out what isn’t worth the splurge.
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This creamy fruit has a thick peel that protects the flesh from absorbing agricultural chemicals. It’s on the Clean 15 list of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which highlights commonly consumed produce with the lowest amounts of pesticides, as tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). “Foods that have to be peeled, like bananas and avocados, tend to have a much lower number of residues when those foods have been prepared to eat,” says Alex Formuzis, a spokesperson from the EWG. Be sure to wash the skin thoroughly before cutting into it.
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Because the USDA does not currently provide organic standards for fish and shellfish, seafood labeled “organic” may not be any safer for you and your family. And organic seafood may still contain contaminants, such as PCBs and mercury. Instead, look for seafood that is low in mercury (like tilapia, sole, and oysters) and that was caught using sustainable practices.
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According to the EWG’s “Shoppers Guide to Pesticides in Produce,” 98 percent of sampled onions were pesticide-free. These bulblike vegetables grow underground, which is safe from many pests, and have a pungent flavor that naturally repels some bugs.
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Quinoa, a vegetarian source of protein, is an Andean import whose popularity has grown from a niche ingredient to a mainstay in many kitchens. Besides having many nutritional benefits, it’s also low in pesticides. “People may use pesticides, but quinoa doesn’t need them, since it has a coating that contains bitter-tasting saponins, making the crop nearly impermeable to pests,” says Carolyn Dimitri, an associate professor of food studies at New York University, in New York City. Most quinoa packagers remove the coating, but it’s worthwhile to give it another rinse before cooking to be sure.
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The tough, spiny skin can make peeling a pineapple a prickly endeavor, but it also keeps the fruit from absorbing agricultural chemicals. When picking a pineapple, remember that it will not ripen once picked–it will only soften. And the color of a pineapple does not indicate the sweetness, so choose one that is firm, with green, fresh-looking leaves.
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Whether fresh or frozen, sweet corn is a delicious year-round treat that is also low in pesticides. The USDA found no detectable chemicals on almost all the samples it tested. “The pesticide residue profiles for sweet corn—fresh or frozen—are very similar,” says Forumzis. “Generally neither form of corn has very many pesticides on it.” A great alternative during the cooler months, frozen corn is generally picked and processed at the height of the growing season, making it about as nutritious and tasty as fresh.
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Shelling out a few extra bucks for a jug of organic maple syrup may make you feel as if you’re doing your family a favor, but your organic budget is best spent elsewhere. “Maple syrup is usually forest harvested and probably had no pesticides or fertilizers applied, regardless of whether the label says ‘organic,’” says Dimitri.
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Another member of the EWG’s Clean 15, cabbage is generally low in pesticides because of its natural resilience to bugs. The outer leaves tend to shield the inner leaves from almost all toxic sprays, so be sure to discard them if you’re not buying organic.
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Native to South Asia but grown all over the world, mangoes can be eaten by themselves or as a sweet addition to savory dishes. Beyond being versatile, mangoes test low for pesticides, mainly because of their thick, inedible peel. “Pesticides in most cases tend to be highly concentrated on the outside of the food. Peeling would then remove most of the pesticides,” says Formuzis.
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These fist-sized fuzzy fruits owe much to their prickly brown skins, which keep pesticides from getting into the tangy green flesh within. Although the skin is edible and contains several nutrients, you’re better off discarding it if you choose the non-organic route. Kiwi is just as delicious without it.