How I Shop: The Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen

Buying absolutely everything local/organic/grass-fed gets tough when you’re on a budget.  You should always make an effort to get as much as you can.  However, that’s not always possible.  I get it, trust me. 
When you’re tight on cash, the solution is NOT to stop buying quality food completely and surrender to SAD-approved cheapies.  All you need is a little planning.  There are certain things you should always buy organic–hands down–because they are the most likely to contain pesticides, hormones, and other nasty crap.  There are also some foods that you really don’t ever need to get organic because they are either easiest to farm without pesticides or easy to clean yourself.
One rule of thumb I’ve heard in the past is that anything with a skin (i.e. bananas, oranges, etc) is fine when they aren’t organic because you can wash and peel them.  I don’t like this as much because I’ve definitely been that crazy lady standing over a display of apples wondering if it’s safe to buy the huge, shiny, non-organic Red Delicious variety (“Is it good enough to wash them if I EAT the skin…?”).

Thankfully the Environmental Working Group has come to the rescue again and published the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists.  The Dirty Dozen are 12 foods that should ABSOLUTELY be purchased organic.  Conversely, the Clean Fifteen are 15 foods that are generally OK when conventionally farmed because they have the lowest levels of pesticide residue.
The EWG estimates that we can reduce individual pesticide exposure by 80 percent simply by following these guidelines.  Ideally you’re buying as much organic produce as possible, but using these lists as a minimum standard is a good place to start.  (Here’s a printable list.  I laminated one in Scotch Tape and put it in my wallet because I’m cool like that.)
The Dirty Dozen
1.      Apples
2.      Celery
3.      Strawberries
4.      Peaches
5.      Spinach
6.      Imported nectarines
7.      Imported grapes
8.      Bell peppers
9.      Potatoes
10.  Domestic blueberries
11.  Lettuce
12.  Kale
The Clean Fifteen
1.      Onions
2.      Corn
3.      Pineapples
4.      Avocado
5.      Asparagus
6.      Peas
7.      Mangoes
8.      Eggplant
9.      Domestic cantaloupe
10.  Kiwi
11.  Cabbage
12.  Watermelon
13.  Sweet potatoes
14.  Grapefruit
15.  Mushrooms
Use your common sense, too.  If you’re wondering if something is safe if it’s not organic but isn’t on either list, just ask yourself if it resembles something that is to be on the safe side.  For example, I always buy organic raspberries and blackberries because strawberries and blueberries both are listed under The Dirty Dozen.  Conversely, I’d be ok buying conventional honeydew melons because conventional cantaloupe and watermelon are safe.
If you’re really trying to pinch your pennies and still get quality food, there are a couple of additional steps you can take.
Eat locally.  Local produce is cheaper to transport and chances are you’ll know where it comes from and can do some research to ensure clean and sustainable farming practices.
Eat seasonally.  When it doesn’t have to be shipped in from another continent, produce is cheaper and higher quality.
Hit up a Farmer’s Market.  Not only are you supporting small farming enterprises in your community (feel-good points!), your produce will be fresh and affordable.  If you’re worried about sustainable farming practices, you can just ask the dude at the stall.
Buy frozen.  Not only are frozen veggies really convenient and durable, they are just as nutritious as fresh as long as they weren’t cooked before they were packaged.  However, you don’t want to boil them or steam them in the bags.  I just toss them into a glass bowl and nuke for a few minutes.
Go without.  Really, REALLY strapped for cash and can’t afford ANYTHING in the organic aisle this week?  Just avoid buying anything on The Dirty Dozen list or anything that seems too similar.  There’s plenty on the safe list to help you stay full of veggies and sleep better at night knowing you’re not flooding your system (as much) with toxins.
Ultimately it’s up to you to decide what you do and don’t put in your body.  A little extra planning and strategy in the produce aisle can really pay off (literally)…but as always, if you’ve got a little extra to spend this week, don’t hesitate to go above and beyond.

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