Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables?
Your Ultimate Guide

4.8 stars, average of 25 ratings

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate GuideShareFollow us

Organic food is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, including among the growing keto and low-carb community. A 2016 survey of 100,000 US households found that 82% of them purchased organic products, and a European report revealed that sales of organic foods in the EU increased by 11% between 2015 and 2016. A large portion of this includes organic produce.

Although they provide many benefits, choosing exclusively organic fruits and vegetables may not be possible for everyone because they can be quite expensive and aren't always available.

In this article, I'll explain the differences between organic and conventional produce, discuss in which cases selecting the organic option is most important, and share strategies for minimizing pesticide exposure from vegetables and fruits.

What Does “Organic” Mean With Respect to Produce?

The term “organic” is used to describe fruits, vegetables, and other plants that have been grown using primarily natural substances rather than synthetic ones, such as pesticides.

Organic farming typically involves the use of biological fertilizers like animal manure to facilitate the growth of crops and maintain nutrient-rich soil. It also features composting, crop rotation, water management practices, and other environmentally-friendly methods of growing food.

Additionally, genetically modified organisms (GMO's) and irradiated foods cannot be classified as organic.

It's worth pointing out that all farming was considered “organic” up until the middle of the 20th century, when chemical pesticides were developed that allowed farmers to grow larger amounts of food with less damage from insects, weeds, and other pests.

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide

Organic Certification Criteria

Although organic farming is self-regulated in most countries, there is typically some government oversight involved. For instance, in the US, EU, Canada, Australia, and Mexico, foods can only be certified as organic when grown in accordance with the standards set by the governmental agency in that country.

Since its National Organic Program was established in 2000, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows crops and livestock to be certified as organic and display the USDA organic seal if they meet the following criteria:

  • produced without the use of synthetic chemicals
  • not produced on land that has had any prohibited substances applied during the 3 years immediately preceding their harvest
  • produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and certifying agent

In the US, most chemical or synthetic pesticides are prohibited in organic farming. However, in cases where natural pesticides can't adequately control pests and weeds, a synthetic pesticide approved for organic farming may be used, as long as the reason for its use is documented in the organic farming plan.

Keep in mind that the majority of pesticides used by organic farmers are natural. In fact, only 25 of the pesticides on the approved list are synthetic, compared to several hundred that can be used in conventional farming.

Benefits of Choosing Organic Produce

Fewer Pesticide Residues

Pesticides are designed to control pests that can interfere with plant growth, such as insects, rodents, fungi, and weeds. Chemical pesticides include herbicides, which are by far the most common, accounting for about 80% of all pesticides.

Before a pesticide can be used on food crops, the US requires that its Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) evaluate whether it may pose any risk to health.

Large, comprehensive reviews have shown that conventional produce contains significantly higher levels of chemicals and pesticides than organic produce ( 1,  2). In a 2012 meta-analysis of over 200 studies, detectable levels of pesticide resides were found in 38% of conventionally farmed produce and only 7% of organically farmed produce ( 1).

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide

Reduced Risk of Potential Pesticide-Related Health Issues

Over the years, pesticide exposure has been linked to increased rates of certain diseases, including diabetes, some cancers, reproductive disorders and neurological conditions like Parkinson's disease ( 3).

Fortunately, many harmful pesticides are no longer used due to concerns about their safety.

However, one of today's most widely used herbicides, Roundup, has been found to be among the most toxic to human cells ( 4). Although its primary ingredient, glyphosate, has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (AIRC), a 2017 assessment by the EU concluded that typical exposure levels from pesticide residues are unlikely to pose health risks ( 5).

Did you know that Roundup, one of today's most widely used herbicides, has been found to be among the most toxic to human cells?

Governmental agencies in most countries set and regulate the maximum levels of pesticide residues allowed in foods. However, concerns have been raised that these residues may accumulate in the body over time and that currently acceptable levels may be too high to guarantee safety, especially in babies and children, whose brains and central nervous systems are still developing, as well as women who are pregnant or trying to conceive ( 6,  7).

A recent 2018 study of 340 women trying to conceive found that those who reported eating the most produce with high pesticide residues were 26% less likely to have a successful pregnancy than women who ate the least of these foods (8).

On the other hand, some researchers contend that based on the research to date, consuming organic fruits and vegetables shouldn't be considered any safer or healthier than conventional produce that contains pesticide residues within the acceptable range ( 9).

Additionally, the amount of pesticide residues that remain on produce vary greatly based on the amount and types of pesticide used, as well as the kind of fruit or vegetable the agents have been applied to.

Potential Improvement in Nutritional Quality

Although study results have been mixed, some types of organic produce may provide more of certain nutrients than conventionally grown produce.

Some studies have found that organic produce contains higher levels of vitamin C and certain phenols, which are antioxidants found in the pigments of fruits and vegetables that may help reduce disease risk ( 10,  11,  12).

However, more research is needed to determine whether organic produce provides higher amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other beneficial nutrients than conventional produce.

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide

Reduced Overall Environmental Burden

Pesticides used in conventional farming of fruits and vegetables may also cause harm to the environment due to their effects on soil composition and birds and other species ( 13). However, although a large review of several studies found that organic farming was more beneficial for the environment overall, it gave an edge to conventional farming in a few areas, such as using less land and producing fewer nitrous oxide emissions ( 13,  14).

Industrial egg, meat, and dairy farming pose greater risks to environmental health, as we discussed in this article.

When Is Choosing Organic Most Important?

Making all or most of your vegetable and fruit purchases organic can be beneficial in several ways. In addition to reducing your pesticide exposure and helping to protect the health of the planet, an increased demand for organic produce may lead to it becoming more widely available and affordable.

However, at this point buying only organic foods simply isn't realistic for everyone. Therefore, it's best to focus on making organic selections when it comes to foods that contain the highest level of pesticide residues when farmed conventionally.

Does organic matter? Buying only organic foods isn't realistic for everyone. If you can't afford organic, buy fruits and vegetables that are low in pesticide residues.

Low-Carb Options from the “Dirty Dozen Plus” Produce List

The mission of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is “to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment.” Based on their ongoing research, they provide an annual list of the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest pesticide residues, known as the  “Dirty Dozen.”

Fortunately, if you follow a low carb or keto way of eating, you're probably not eating most of the fruits anyway, with the exception of berries. However, in addition to berries, there are some healthy very-low-carb vegetables that rank fairly high on the list of  48 fruits and vegetables tested for pesticide residues.

Vegetables and Fruits Your Should Buy Organic

Try to make organic selections of these foods whenever possible in order to reduce your exposure to pesticides.

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Kale
  • Lettuce, collard greens, and other greens
  • Tomatoes and cherry tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Bell peppers
  • Cucumbers
  • Blueberries
  • Hot peppers

These low-carb fruits and vegetables contain the highest levels of pesticide residues: strawberries, spinach, kale, tomatoes, celery, peppers, lettuce and cucumber. Always choose organic!

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate GuidePin itFollow us 123.4k

How to Minimize Exposure to Pesticides in Non-Organic Produce

When you're unable to purchase organic, you can still minimize your exposure to chemicals by following the recommendations below.

Choose Low-Carb Options from the “Clean 15” List

As the flip side to the “Dirty Dozen,” the EWG creates a list of fruits and vegetables that have been found to have extremely low levels of pesticide residues. Here are the low-carb-friendly options from the  “Clean 15”:

  • Avocado
  • Onions
  • Eggplant
  • Asparagus
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Cantaloupes and honeydew melons

These low-carb fruits and vegetables contain the lowest level of pesticide residues: avocados, onions, eggplants, cabbage, asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli and mushrooms. Both organic and non-organic are good options.

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate GuidePin itFollow us 123.4k

Strategies for Washing Produce to Remove Pesticides

Residues from certain types of pesticide aren't easily removed by washing. In one study of 12 different kinds of pesticide residues in produce from a supermarket, 3 weren't reduced at all when food was rinsed well with tap water, whereas similar rinsing eliminated the other 9 ( 15).

However, other studies have shown that washing fruits and vegetables helps significantly remove many of the most common pesticides.

One group of researchers tested several kinds of produce that contained residues from different pesticides. Interestingly, they found that special produce washes, such as FIT and VeggieWash, didn't seem to remove pesticide residues any better than plain tap water (16).

By contrast, in another study, rinsing with detergent, salt water, or acetic acid (vinegar) solution removed significantly more pesticide residues than plain tap water ( 17). And a recent study from 2017 found that adding baking soda to water help minimize pesticide residue on apples ( 18).

Despite some research suggesting that water alone is sufficient to remove many types pesticide residues, I would recommend using a produce wash or one of the natural solutions above, given the different study findings when testing various pesticides. Additionally, make sure to rinse fruits and vegetables for a minimum of 30 seconds.

Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide

Should I buy organic? Here is when and why choosing organic fruits and vegetables matters.

Take Home Message

Although there isn't universal agreement among researchers and food safety experts, I believe the evidence to date suggests that consuming a lot of produce with pesticide residues could possibly be risky from a health standpoint, especially for babies, growing children, and women who are pregnant or trying to conceive.

Choosing organic vegetables and fruits can help minimize your exposure to these potentially dangerous compounds, protect the environment, and perhaps increase the nutritional value of your food.

On the other hand, not everyone has access to a large selection of organic foods or the financial means to purchase them exclusively. In this case, it makes sense to try to select organic when purchasing foods known to contain high pesticide residues (also known as the "Dirty Dozen Plus") and wash conventional produce well in order to minimize your exposure.

  1. Blog
  2. Expert Articles
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide
  1. Blog
  2. Guides
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide
  1. Blog
  2. Nutrition
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide
  1. Blog
  2. Advice
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide
  1. Blog
  2. Diet & Nutrition
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide
  1. Blog
  2. Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE
  3. Should I Buy Organic Fruits and Vegetables? Your Ultimate Guide

Do you like this post? Share it with your friends! 

Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE
Registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator and creator of LowCarbDietitian.com

Franziska Spritzler

Franziska Spritzler, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is a strong proponent of carbohydrate restriction for people struggling with diabetes, insulin resistance, obesity, and PCOS.

She follows a very-low-carbohydrate, ketogenic diet for blood sugar control and has experienced many improvements in her health as a result of making this change.

Expert Article

This article was written by Franziska Spritzler, RD, CDE who is a qualified expert. At KetoDiet we work with a team of health professionals to ensure accurate and up-to-date information. You can find out more on the About us page.

Evidence Based

Evidence-Based articles are based on medical research, and scientific evidence. Our expert authors focus on hard evidence alone and include relevant research references from trusted sources to support their articles. We always aim to deliver relevant, trustworthy and up-to-date information based on trusted evidence and proven research.

Let us know what you think, rate this post!

Leave a comment

Note: Any links to products or affiliate links will not be approved.
Please note that we do not offer personalised advice. For any diet related questions, please join our Facebook community.

Comments (4)

Does the "dirthy dozen"apply just to food grown in USA or it's generically referred worldwide?

Reply

Hi Roberta, check out Franziska's reply below.

Reply

Thank you so much for this! I'm so happy to see avocados in the clean list. Organic avocados are so expensive! I have a few questions if that's ok?
Do you know if it only applies to the US? Is it the same for Europe? How about fruits and veggies that are not in the list? Is there a way to find out the pesticide level in other fruits and veggies like Brussels sprouts and blackberries? Thank you! 😊

Reply

Hi Wendy,
I'n so glad you liked the article. The Dirty Dozen Plus and and Clean 15 lists apply to produce in the US only. However, this article has some information about pesticide residues on produce sold in Germany and some other countries: https://vegetarische.wordpress.com/2015/08/28/updated-dirty-dozen-pesticide-data-for-europe/. In that list, pesticide residues in Brussels sprouts are classified as medium to medium-high, and although blackberries aren't listed, I would assume their pesticide levels are similar to raspberries.
- Franziska

Reply