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Health Hack #19 - When It's Wisest To Shop For Organic Produce

There was a time not too long ago when the produce at our local Whole Foods was exclusively organic. Nowadays, one must pay very close attention in order to differentiate between organic and not. Why is that? Did Whole Foods decide to change course following their merger with Amazon? No. As a matter of fact, Whole Foods ushered in conventional produce well before they were co-opted into the Amazon vortex. As it turned out, organic produce is expensive. For many of us an exclusively organic diet is cost prohibitive. If anyone has been to an organic-only eatery, then they know full well that this is the case. And this is especially true in our climate, where much of our produce comes from afar many months out of the year.

The mission of this article is simple, and like last week’s (link here), it’s also easily digestible. In a world where going 100% organic is difficult, time consuming, and quite expensive, how can we make careful choices such that we’re shopping organic when it matters the most, while mitigating any deleterious effects of buying conventional? We’re told by health nuts that organic reigns supreme by a wide margin across the board, but it’s actually not that simple.

The Dirty Dozen

Not to be confused with the classic film, the Dirty Dozen is an annual list that provides helpful warnings that inform us when it’s wisest to go organic. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) performs testing and ranks produce items based on pesticide residue. They then publish a consolidated Dirty Dozen list of the 12 most pesticide-laden items. You might be shocked to know that Strawberries, Spinach, and Kale are the top three offenders. Be careful with those strawberry salads! You can learn more about the EWG and view the Dirty Dozen List here, but we’ll also spell out the list of 12 at the end of this article. And if this topic rings a bell, you may be recalling our Fall Newsletter, where we shared that we became “Dirty Dozen Compliant”, vowing to source organic-only for those DD listed products that we sell. We proudly continue to stand by this claim.

The Tie that Binds the Dirty 12

You’ll note a very common theme amongst all 12 culprits. In every case, the foods are traditionally consumed with their skin on. Additionally, they mostly have a soft, very absorbable exterior and a moist center, allowing pesticides to penetrate the foods and register dangerously high on the noxious residue scale. This is quite helpful to keep in mind when scouring your local produce section or ordering off of restaurant menus that don’t serve organic produce. If, like a strawberry or traditional tomato, the skin is soft and never peeled prior to eating, then it’s best to think twice or at least limit yourself to moderate helpings.

The Clean 15

The Dirty Dozen gets a fair amount of play within the health space, but The Clean 15 is often relegated to the shadows of conversation. Is it superior to go fully organic if given the choice? Probably, so long as time, budget, and accessibility are all well aligned with doing so. But that’s simply not feasible for the vast majority of us. Nor is it feasible for restaurants, both from a procurement and cost perspective. That is where the Clean 15 List helps immensely.

Also published by the EWG, The Clean 15 provides an annual list of the least pesticide-laden real foods, allowing consumers to rest assured that they’re safe in sourcing many items conventionally. To view this published site, click here.

As alluded to in the photo above, the opposite logic is true of cleaner whole foods. If there’s a thick shell such as the one we encounter with an avocado, it’s extremely difficult for pesticides to penetrate through the skin and enter into the edible pulp of the food. Dense, fibrous, dryer vegetables have similar pesticide resistant properties, such as cauliflower and broccoli. Despite lacking that outer shell, their inner makeup works as its own little force field.

The Nuance Present in Farmer’s Markets

Certified Organic labeling comes at a steep price, and it often takes farms seven years or more to earn this coveted title. Not only do these farms employ safer, more eco-friendly farming practices - which cost far more than the cheaper, more ubiquitous products like Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Round-Up - they’re also forced to keep up with the licensing/inspection fees of applying for and later maintaining their certification. Much like the cost of the end product in the organic section of the grocery store is cost prohibitive for many consumers, so too are the entry costs of going organic for many small farms. And so, it’s not uncommon to find farms operating with the utmost integrity in a fully organic-focused practice, despite not carrying the Certified Organic label. Therefore, when sifting through stands at farmer’s markets, it helps to establish a dialogue with the vendor and inquire about their approach to farming. These often provide the best opportunities to buy organic with the added benefit of shopping local.

Ok, so I now get the Produce thing. But what about everything else?

Per the title of this article, the focus here is exclusively on produce. The products we tend to encounter on the outer rim of grocery stores and at farmer’s markets: raw, real foods, namely fruits and vegetables. But what about everything else? “I saw this new pizza joint open up, touting organic dough...does that matter?” “What about all of the things that are sold in the actual aisles of the grocery store, and not just the produce section?” Great questions. These happen to be fairly weighty topics, one's deserving of their own Health Hack. Stay tuned for the lowdown next week where we’ll break this all down.

Hopefully the (abnormally) brief nature of today’s Hack serves as a bit of a reprieve from the recent lengthier ones, and increases the odds of data absorption. We aim to make these articles as bioavailable (😉) as possible, but realize they can sometimes get a bit heavy in the science end of things. Worth noting that feedback is always welcome, and can be directed here: If there’s ever a health topic you’d like to see us cover or questions you have regarding any other our past articles, definitely hit us up!

Below we’ll leave you with a listing of both the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. Pro-tip: if you’re accustomed to continually revisiting photos on your phone, great - go ahead and snap a few pics below. If not, then consider transcribing these lists into the Notes sections for easier reference, or maybe even bookmark the two links above. In either event - it would be helpful to have a reference available to you the next time you’re shopping for produce!




3.  KALE







10. TOMATOES (large varieties, primarily)


12. POTATOES (not sweet potatoes, only white!)


(Avocado’s representing the cleanest of the clean)




4.  SWEET PEAS (frozen)












Keep it real!