Organic food is growing more popular in the U.S., and for good reason. It’s better for the environment and less likely to contain pesticide residue than conventional foods are. While pesticides protect plants from insects and disease, they may pose health risks, particularly if you consume large amounts of them. According to a 2011 Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences report, animal studies show that an organic diet can positively affect weight, growth, fertility and even immune function. But not everyone has access to or can afford to eat a 100% organic diet. Read on to find out which foods are less likely to contain a significant amount of pesticide residue, and are therefore safest to purchase as conventional (i.e. non-organic), if needed.
One half-cup of chopped, raw carrots provides 184% of adults’ recommended daily intake of vitamin A — a nutrient that plays a vital role in organ function and age-related blindness, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. Many of the pesticides used to cultivate commercial carrots linger in the peel. When you peel the carrots yourself before eating, you are removing most of the pesticides. Enjoy whole, peeled carrots raw, in juices or smoothies or lightly cooked as a side dish. Heat helps release the antioxidants, making carrots even more nutritious.
There’s no need to cry over commercially grown onions from a pesticide standpoint. Onions are significantly lower in pesticide residue than other commercial produce, according to the Environmental Working Group, the leading environmental health research and advocacy organization in the U.S. In addition to enhancing the flavor of dishes, onions provide rich amounts of antioxidants. Onions also have a flavonoid called quercetin, which may help inhibit the growth of H. pylori bacteria, which underlies most stomach ulcers. Eat onions fresh on sandwiches, burgers and salads, or as part of a nutritious base for soups, sauces and stir-fries.
Avocados are loaded with essential nutrients including potassium, folate and vitamins K, B-6, E and C. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, avocados may improve your cholesterol levels, lower your risk for heart disease and help keep your blood sugar levels stable. The thick outer peel keeps pesticides away from the edible fruit, making avocados one of the safest non-organic produce purchases. For added cardiovascular benefits, swap out saturated fat sources, such as high-fat cheese, butter and mayo in favor of avocado slices in sandwiches. Additionally, guacamole provides a nutritious alternative to high-fat cream-based dips.
The thick skin of pineapples absorbs most of the pesticides used for cultivation, making it one of the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” — 15 fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue. Pineapple also provides a sweet vitamin-C-rich alternative to commercial strawberries. (Due to their thin skin and small size, strawberries tend to contain relatively high pesticide levels.) One cup of fresh pineapple cubes provides more than 100% of the recommended intake of vitamin C for adults. Pineapples also contain bromelain, an enzyme that helps break down food and reduces bodily inflammation. Hoping to save time? Choose unsweetened frozen pineapple, which is as nutritious as fresh.
Asparagus is among the vegetables least likely to contain pesticide residue, according to Environmental Working Group analyses. Asparagus provides rich amounts of the flavonoid rutin — a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. “Asparagus on the grill is a simple and delicious way to enjoy it,” said Dina Aronson, a registered dietitian and president of Welltech Solutions in Montclair, New Jersey. “Try it in place of french fries, dipped in a little garlic aioli or even some creamy hummus.” Brush trimmed asparagus spears with olive oil, she suggested, then grill them until tender.
Good news: the grapefruit’s dense peel helps keep pesticides from invading the juicy fruit. “Hesperetin, a flavonoid, along with other compounds found in citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, may help blood flow to our fingers and toes,” says Dina Aronson, RD. Studies on people with cold sensitivity, she adds, reveal that those consuming high doses citrus beverages have better peripheral blood flow and warmer fingers than those consuming a fake fruit drink. “Eat a grapefruit or 2 next time you go skiing, and maybe your fingers and toes will feel more toasty during your runs,” she said. Grapefruit also supplies valuable amounts of water, potassium and vitamin C.
Mangos can help satisfy your sweet tooth without excessive calories or pesticides. The dense peel protects the insides from toxic chemicals used for production, and a 1-cup serving of mango supplies a mere 100 calories and zero grams of fat compared to a cup of ice cream, which provides about 270 calories, and 14 grams of fat. A serving of mango also provide 35% of your recommended daily intake of vitamin A and valuable amounts of fiber, which helps keep you satiated. Serve mango fresh or pureed with ice and other desired fruits as a tasty, nutritious smoothie. For a healthy dessert, top a bowl of fresh mango cubes with a dollop of Greek yogurt.
8. Kiwi fruit
If you’re given the choice between a non-organic nectarine, peach or kiwi, you may want to opt for the kiwi. While nectarines and peaches fall within the Environmental Working Group’s top 10 highest pesticide culprits, kiwis fall in the top 10 most “clean.” Though kiwis have a thin skin, the fruit is seldom sprayed with pesticides. Kiwis are rich in vitamins and antioxidants known to help reduce asthma symptoms and improve immune function, said Vancouver nutritionist Rich Ralph. The rich fiber content supports digestive function and appetite control. Since the peel is particularly nutritious, Ralph suggests eating the entire fruit. Slice kiwis up or eat them whole for a sweet and tangy nutritious snack.
Mushrooms are some of the least pesticide-ridden veggies. They’re also nutrient powerhouses, according to a Leslie K. Kay, a clinical dietitian and “Today’s Dietitian” contributor. Mushrooms provide notable amounts of B vitamins, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, selenium and fiber. Mushrooms are the only plant source of vitamin D — a nutrient that is essential for healthy bones. The darker the mushroom, the more flavorful, says Kay, who suggests sautéing or grilling mushrooms at a high heat for the most intense flavor. Add small mushrooms to soups, salads, curries and casseroles. Large mushrooms, such as portobellos, provide fat-free vegetarian alternatives to hamburger patties.
Papayas also made the Environmental Working Group’s list of foods lowest in pesticide residue. The nutritional perks of papaya are as vibrant as its bright orange color. One-half of a small papaya supplies 80% of your daily recommended intake of vitamin C, along with rich amounts of potassium, folic acid, beta-carotene and fiber. “The phytochemicals lutein, beta-cryptoxanthin and zeaxanthin found in papaya may help prevent age-related macular degeneration,” said Dina Aronson, RD. Macular degeneration is a leading cause of blindness. Plus, a potent enzyme in papayas, papain, helps aid digestion. “Papaya is delicious in salads, especially paired with bitter greens like arugula,” said Aronson.
11. Sweet peas
Sweet peas have very little pesticide residue and are safe to buy as conventional (i.e. non-organic), according to the Environmental Working Group. One cup of sweet peas supplies a whopping 14 grams of fiber, making them one of the highest-fiber veggies. The Institute of Medicine recommends at least 25 grams of fiber per day per women and 38 grams for men under the age of 50 — yet Americans consume an average of 15 daily grams. To add fiber, protein and a slew of other essential nutrients to your diet, incorporate frozen peas into chili, soups and casseroles.
The tough skin of the cantaloupe protects its juicy insides from pesticide residue, making it one of the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15.” Believe it or not, cantaloupe and other melons are members of the cucurbit family, which includes pumpkins, zucchini, cucumbers, summer squash and winter squash. Like other squash, cantaloupe provides plentiful amounts of fiber, vitamin C and betacarotene — an antioxidant that promotes lustrous skin, hair and eye-health. “To ripen cantaloupe at home, leave at room temperature,” writes Heather Calcote, a registered dietitian in Washington D.C. Once ripe, Calcote suggests adding diced cantaloupe to brown rice and polenta for added color, flavor and nutrients.
13. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are less likely to contain high levels of pesticide residue, compared to other produce. The Center for Science in the Public Interest calls sweet potatoes one of the healthiest vegetables around. Loaded with betacarotene, potassium, vitamin C and fiber, they provide a source of satisfying, natural sweetness without the excess calories and blood sugar imbalances associated with sugary desserts. The CSPI recommends baking sweet potatoes and then mixing in unsweetened applesauce or crushed pineapple for added sweetness and moisture. You can also dust the tops of baked sweet potatoes with cinnamon and a drizzle of pure maple syrup.
An entire cup of cooked, cubed eggplant provides a mere 33 calories, along with valuable amounts of satiating fiber. Many of the pesticides used to cultivate commercial eggplant do not remain on the skin of the plant, earning it a place on the Environmental Working Group’s “Clean 15” list and making eggplant a safer choice than high-pesticide vegetables, such as summer squash and white potatoes. For a tasty dish, grill eggplant slices brushed with olive oil until the outsides are golden-brown. Then add desired seasoning, such as basil, oregano, garlic or a light dusting of sea salt.
Leafy vegetables need not be green to be nutritious. Whether white, red or purple, cabbage provides significant amounts of nutrients, including vitamin C and fiber, and markedly low calories, or about 13 per cup of cooked cabbage. Like kale, cabbage is a cruciferous vegetable that may guard against some types of cancer including colorectal cancers according to a recently published study. Unlike kale, which makes the Environmental Resource Group’s list of high-pesticide items, cabbage tends to contain little toxic residue. Add fresh, chopped cabbage to leafy salads and coleslaws. Cabbage also makes nutritious additions to stir-fries and soups.
The flavor isn’t the only sweet attribute of watermelon. The thick outer casing provides protection from pesticides in the soil. Watermelon may also help soothe muscle pain, bolster heart health and improve circulation. Watermelon is also a prime source of lycopene, an antioxidant associated with the prevention and treatment of prostate cancer. To keep your calorie intake and weight in-check, swap out high-calorie, low-nutrient sweets in your diet with sweet fruits, such as watermelon. Watermelon also makes a tasty addition to smoothies.