Save at the Grocery Store: When to Buy Organic, When to Save Your Money

Since we can’t subsist on cupcakes alone, let’s talk about fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce can be expensive when you are trying to stick to a frugal grocery budget, and organic produce can seem like a major splurge as the numbers on the cash register ring up. So, given that it’s often more expensive, what makes organic worth it?

Image from

Organic fruits and vegetables are grown without the use of synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers. The use of these substances on so-called “conventional” or non-organic produce means more chemical residues in your body as well as in the farmland and surrounding environment. The Environmental Working Group has spent years testing produce and has come up with two lists to help consumers navigate the produce department: the Dirty Dozen and the Clean 15. The EWG “found that consumers could cut their pesticide exposure by almost 90% by avoiding the most contaminated fruits and vegetables and eating the least contaminated instead” (EWG Press Release.)

Image from

The Dirty Dozen are foods shown to contain the most pesticide residue; for example, apples top the list with 98% of non-organic apples tested containing pesticides. Non-organic onions score the highest on the Clean 15 with less than 1% testing positive for pesticides. While I’d love to buy all organic produce (ideally fresh from a nearby farm), my wallet might jump out of my purse and smack me upside the head. Instead, I’ve used these lists as a concise and indispensable resource to determine which items are worth the splurge, and which I’m okay buying non-organic. Here are the full lists from the EWG’s 2011 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce.

The Dirty Dozen (non-organic produce retaining the most pesticide residue)

1. Apples
2. Celery
3. Strawberries
4. Peaches
5. Spinach
6. Imported Nectarines
7. Imported Grapes
8. Sweet bell peppers
9. Potatoes
10. Domestic Blueberries
11. Lettuce
12. Kale/Collard greens

and now the good news…

The Clean 15 (non-organic produce retaining the least pesticide residue)

1. Onions
2. Corn
3. Pineapples
4. Avocado
5. Asparagus
6. Sweet peas
7. Mangoes
8. Eggplant
9. Domestic Cantaloupe
10. Kiwi
11. Cabbage
12. Watermelon
13. Sweet potatoes
14. Grapefruit
15. Mushrooms

It can be hard to remember which is dirty and which is clean when you’re staring into a crisper full of vegetables. To simplify your shopping, go to and click on “download guide as PDF” on the lefthand side to download a wallet-sized shopper’s guide with both lists (printable PDFs or an App for iOS or Android). You can also find a more complete listing of non-organic produce found to contain pesticides on the site. Treat yourself right and splurge on organic greens, but don’t feel bad about enjoying conventional grilled asparagus or juicy cantaloupe at a summer cookout.

About Alicia Jay

I'm a radical homemaker, container gardener, and cheerful cook.
This entry was posted in Alicia, Frugal Cooking, Gluten-Free and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Save at the Grocery Store: When to Buy Organic, When to Save Your Money

  1. Great post!! Very helpful when you look at each list and I love that you included a link for a pocket-sized version!

  2. Emily says:

    This is an area where I struggle- a lot. Sometimes, I’ll see organic produce that’s been shipped here from Holland, Canada, or Mexico, and I will immediately put it down and buy something that’s more locally grown, even if it’s conventional. For example, I frequent my local market, where I know the money will be going to the farmers or families who run the stands. But this means I often buy organic less often than I would like to. What are your feelings on this?

    • I try to buy closer to home when possible and, like you, do that at the expensive of buying organic foods that have been shipped from a continent away. It seems strange to me to purchase something from overseas when the same fruit or vegetable could have been grown in my backyard. This practice also goes along with buying seasonal produce- you have to get comfortable with what’s produced in your region. Shopping seasonal and local often help cut down costs too- I know a CSA can help, but as someone cooking for one, even the smallest boxes usually result in food waste for me. I’ve started to grow my own greens, since a lot of what I like is on the dirty dozen list, and go from there.

  3. Margot says:

    I have built many raised gdrneas and I use landscape bricks. I use the 7 bricks and it is extremely easy to assemble. You just lay it how long you want then alternate the bricks. Check it out with Home Depot, Lowes, or any hardware store. Then you fill it with top soil with compost and you are good to go. It is easy to do I am a woman and also assembled a raised bed the length of my house (with a broken hand) in a couple of hours. You can do it.

Comments are closed.