Is Organic Produce Worth It?

Why paying more for some fruits and vegetables may be a smart move

By now, most people have heard health experts’ best grocery shopping advice: When you go to the store, stick to the outside aisles. That’s where you’ll find the raw ingredients for healthy, wholesome meals.

Eggs, poultry, fish, low-fat dairy and fresh produce are all situated at the edges of the store. With a bit of planning, most home-prepared lunches and dinners can be assembled from those foods, without resorting to high-fat, sugar- and salt-loaded, hyper-processed prepackaged foods in boxes, cans, bottles and jars.

Navigating the produce options at the grocery store

During the past few decades, navigating the produce aisle has become more confusing. Offerings of organic food have increased, leaving shoppers to wonder if it is really worth spending extra money on food that is organically raised.

“If you can afford organic produce, you should definitely choose that,” says Steven Pratt, MD, a Scripps physician who is well-known for his books about nutrient-rich superfoods such as blueberries and peanuts. “Every living creature on the planet would send you a thank you note if it could, because organically produced produce is highly sustainable. In that way, it’s better for all of us.”

Organic produce may also contain more trace minerals than conventionally raised crops, he says, because organic farmers intentionally add nutrient-rich organic material into the soil.

For those whose food budgets are tight, however, Dr. Pratt recommends using guidelines published by the Environmental Working Group to select conventionally grown fruits and veggies that are naturally lowest in pesticides. The nonprofit health advocacy group tested more than 50,000 samples of produce over a nine-year period to come up with its lists, dubbed the “Dirty Dozen” and the “Clean 15.” The group says that choosing organic versions of the “Dirty Dozen” could reduce pesticide ingestion by as much as 92 percent.

Dirty Dozen
Apples
Celery
Strawberries
Peaches
Spinach
Nectarines (imported)
Grapes (imported)
Sweet bell peppers
Potatoes
Blueberries (domestic)
Lettuce
Kale/collard greens

Clean 15
Onions
Sweet corn
Pineapples
Avocado
Asparagus
Sweet Peas
Mangoes
Eggplant
Cantaloupe (domestic)
Kiwi
Cabbage
Watermelon
Sweet potatoes
Grapefruit
Mushrooms

Source: Environmental Working Group

More advice from a nutrition expert

Dr. Pratt advises people eat a minimum of three half-cup servings of fruit and two cups of vegetables per day. Surprisingly, part of the reason for his recommendation is to help the body clear pesticides and other toxins. “Everybody has pesticides in their body, because we’re constantly exposed to them—not just in food, but in the air we breathe and things we touch. Fruits and vegetables help the body clear accumulated toxins through the digestive process.”

Dr. Pratt also suggests shoppers make an additional trip into the heart of the store for some produce. “In a lot of cases, frozen foods like broccoli, carrots and berries are flash-frozen within minutes of being harvested, he says. “Nutritional value is tightly related to how long it’s been since an item was picked. Compare a frozen package of broccoli to a head in the supermarket cooler, which may be 10 days old. The nutritional value of the frozen vegetable is going to be higher in most cases.”

Finding the most nutritious foods and dietary guidance

Farmer’s markets, local produce stands, and community-supported agriculture shares are also good ways to purchase nutritious, fresh, pesticide-free produce on a budget.

If you have questions about how to improve health through your dietary choices, call 1-800-SCRIPPS to find a physician, nutritionist or cooking class.

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