From a pesticide perspective, all conventionally grown produce is not created equal. This inequality stems from bugs’ own food preferences. Problems occur when bugs and humans have a penchant for the same fruit or vegetable. In order for crops to grow to maturity before being ravaged by pests, agribusiness uses a wide variety of pesticides.

While the health impact of ongoing pesticide ingestion is unclear, lab studies have demonstrated a connection between pesticides and birth defects, developmental delays, nerve damage and cancer. The effects relate to the toxicity of the individual pesticide as well as the amount consumed. Since it’s unrealistic to insulate yourself from exposure entirely, the ideal solution is to minimize pesticide consumption.

Organic produce is the saving grace of those wishing to consume mutually-desired (by bugs and humans), yet chemical-free food. The greatest caveat of filling our kitchens with organically grown fare is the considerable expense that accompanies this decision. Growers who don’t use pesticides yield smaller crops compared to their pesticide-using counterparts. It’s no wonder the increased cost of growing organic produce makes it dramatically more expensive.

The February 2006 edition of Consumer Reports helps those aware of the dangers of significant pesticide consumption to prioritize which fruits and veggies warrant paying the price for organic status. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has confirmed that even after washing, certain fruits and vegetables consistently carry varying levels of pesticide residue. As listed below, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a research and advocacy organization, reports the 12 most contaminated foods:

Fruit/Veggie % of samples tested with detectable pesticide residues Average amount in parts per million of all pesticides found
1 Nectarines 97.3% 0.576
2 Celery 94.5% 0.330
3 Pears 94.4% 0.719
4 Peaches 93.7% 1.137
5 Cherries 91.4% 0.290
6 Strawberries 90.4% 1.138
7 Apples 90.9% 1.022
8 Imported Grapes 86.2% 0.280
9 Spinach 83.4% 1.182
10 Potatoes 79.3% 1.260
11 Bell Peppers 68.2% 0.171
12 Raspberries 58.9% 0.788

According to, an EWG website, washing a fruit or vegetable does not change the rank of the preceding 12 most contaminated foods. This is because the pesticide testing was performed after the produce was washed and prepared for consumption. While washing will help reduce residue, it does not eliminate pesticide presence. Unfortunately, pesticides are not only on the surface of the produce, but can also wind up inside the plant’s matrix, rendering it permanent.

To further help decision-making in your local grocery store’s produce aisle, EWG also reports on the 12 least contaminated items:

Fruit/Veggie % of samples tested with detectable pesticide residues Average amount in parts per million of all pesticides found
1 Sweet Corn* 0.2% 0.000
2 Avocado 2.4% 0.002
3 Onion 5.9% 0.289
4 Pineapple 6.7% 0.001
5 Mango 7.4% 0.008
6 Cauliflower 7.6% 0.033
7 Asparagus 10.1% 0.187
8 Papaya 21.7% 0.227
9 Kiwi 23.6% 0.133
10 Broccoli 26.6% 0.004
11 Sweet Pea 27.0% 0.009
12 Banana 53.1% 0.047

*Sweet Corn is not laden by pesticide residues because 75-90 percent of domestically grown corn has been genetically modified to resist pests.

Because fruit and veggies are crucial to a healthy diet, eliminating them based solely on finances is not an ideal solution. Instead, use the above rankings to help determine where your extra dough should go. If you can only afford to splurge on the organic variety of one fruit and one vegetable, choose organic strawberries and spinach. On the other hand, you can save your pennies by purchasing conventionally grown pineapples and sweet peas.

As with any health-related advice, moderation reigns. The health benefits of a varied diet rich in fruit and veggies, should overshadow pesticide concerns. Choosing the least pesticide-laden produce is even more important for those who are pregnant, have young children or liver health concerns (the liver processes all of the toxins we ingest). Regardless of your situation, consider these lists as a tool to help you make the best produce choices.


Consumer Reports, February 2006; vol 71: pp 12-17., Report Card: Pesticides in Produce, Environmental Working Group, 2005., Organic Musts! 17 Most Important Foods to Eat Organic, Modified from: The Green Guide.