If you try to buy organic when it counts to be gentle on your budget, you’re probably familiar with the Dirty Dozen produce list published by the EWG (Environmental Working Group), the same organization that puts out the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database that the natural sunscreen review relies upon heavily.
This is a list of the 12 items that, when consumed, supply your body with over 90% of your chemical pesticide load from fruits and vegetables. You can find the current list here, or see below for the fruits and veggies that stay on the list year after year. You may have this already somewhere in your house or wallet, but you should know that it is updated every year with the newest information, so be sure that your list is current.
Your mission, if you choose to accept, is to memorize the Dirty Dozen list.
Really, you don’t have to memorize the list. Just post it on your fridge and refer to it as you make shopping lists and check grocery sale ads.
On the other end of the list lies the Clean 15, where you’ll find produce with the lowest levels of chemical residue to affect your body.
Both can be helpful in prioritizing your organic purchases when it comes to fruits and vegetables.
What’s on the Dirty Dozen Produce List?
The list changes every year, and you can find the most current list on EWG’s website, but there are a few items that have stayed on the list year after year as far back as 2009.
- Bell Peppers
- Greens – It seems to change from one year to the next, from kale to spinach, then lettuce, then back to kale or maybe collard greens. Maybe all the green leafies should be bought organic?
There’s always a bit of fluctuation from year to year, but these items stay on the list pretty consistently.
Prioritize Your Organic Budget
EWG recommends that you buy items that are on the dirty dozen list organic whenever possible. If you can do that, it’s a way to concentrate your efforts where it counts and save your budget when it doesn’t matter quite as much. That’s why I can say this mission impacts your budget both positively AND negatively: you may find yourself spending more on organic vs. standard produce, but at least you can make wise choices about when to take that plunge.
Dirty Super Foods
You might notice that an unfortunate number of Dirty Dozen items are also on our Everyday Super Foods list. That always makes me sad, but it also gives me more motivation to try to find it in my budget to purchase this stuff often, and purchase it organic when possible. When I can’t, I trust in the promise of my meal blessing and continue to do the best I can.
What’s on the Clean Fifteen Produce List?
As with the Dirty Dozen, the Clean Fifteen list changes every year. You’ll find the most current version here, and the following is a list of items that tend to stay on this list from year to year.
- Sweet corn*
- Frozen sweet peas
- Cabbage (I’m thrilled with this inclusion. Cabbage is super helpful and versatile when trying to eat plenty of veggies on a budget.)
One major caveat on this list, that the EWG also acknowledges: buying organic ensures non-GMO (genetically modified) status. Sweet corn is sometimes (often?) genetically modified. If GMOs are on your “X” list, you’ll want to ignore the fact that corn is on the clean 15 and seek out organic anyway…but it’s hard to find!
How We Decide what to Buy Organic
For my family and my budget, there are some choices that are easy:
- Carrots are rarely more expensive to buy organic, so I always do. Another way to save $ on carrots is to go old-fashioned and cut your own carrot sticks from organic carrots — this ends up being cheaper than conventionally grown “baby” carrots in a 1 lb. package.
- Celery has a negligible price difference when comparing organic to conventional, and we don’t use much celery. Sometimes I buy the organic hearts to include in recipes and the regular stuff for my stocks.
- Grapes – In the winter in Michigan, the grapes in stores are from Chili. They usually don’t have that satisfying snap of American grapes (perhaps because of the long airplane flight from South America). My philosophy is to skip them and wait until summertime when grapes are from California. Sometimes the EWG will specify that grapes grown in the USA are less chemical-y than imported grapes.
- Bananas and Mushrooms – I know, these aren’t on the list. They did make it onto Greg Horn’s list of most important organic choices in the book Living Green, however. I believe because of the impact on the environment and because of the impact on our fellow humans, I buy bananas organic and Fair Trade Certified when I can. Because bananas are usually only 10 cents more per pound for organic and mushrooms are generally the same price when organic goes on sale, I do my best to stay away from the pesticide-laden varieties.
Some choices are harder to swallow, even though the choice is clear:
All of these are so very expensive to buy organic. I just can’t do it. Plus, I prefer to buy peaches and cherries locally and pick our own strawberries in June. They last us almost all year in the freezer.
Some choices are complicated:
- Apples and Pears – I vacillate between local Michigan apples and organic Washington apples. Pears I’ll occasionally buy organic, when on sale. Otherwise, I scrub them to death!
- Bell Peppers – Organic bell peppers are a whole lot more expensive in the grocery store where I live. I just grimace and bear it on this one, but sometimes I can get organic peppers at the Farmer’s Market in the summer and freeze them, both diced and sliced.
- Greens (lettuce, kale, collards, spinach, etc) – I go back and forth on these leafy items as well, depending on what is on sale and what my grocery budget has left. We eat a lot of salad at my house…I wash non-organic lettuce and spinach twice!
Yay! Garlic and Onions aren’t on the list! You can eat them without (as much) worry and with the knowledge that they’re so healthy for your family.
Can You Remove Pesticides from Fruits and Vegetables?
Perhaps you can make one small change in the way you handle the Dirty Dozen items. In my house, when I can’t/don’t buy organic and I know the vegetable or fruit I’m about to use is on the Dirty Dozen list, I scrub harder! Potatoes take forever for me to scrub because I really do them well. If you don’t have a vegetable scrub brush, add it to your wish list! I don’t know if it helps for sure (and the EWG says probably not), but I’ll trust the Lord to at least honor my intentions.
Even if washing help some, keep in mind that the dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists take washing and peeling into account. There are still internal chemicals floating around all these produce items.
I also put my children first and try to make sure they get more organic food than I do if it comes to a choice like that. Their bodies are so much smaller that the chemicals in conventional produce have a much greater negative impact on them than they do on me.
What is the Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables?
To figure out how to best clean produce, I washed apples in 8 different ways. Now you get to learn the most effective way to wash an apple, the not-at-all effective, and the frugal second and third place winners.
When I got my hands on some commercial produce wash (Biokleen), a strange turn of events kicked off this huge experiment.
I had actually already scrubbed my apples, then remembered that I had the wash (classic Katie). I figured I’d follow the directions on the wash and let it sit on my (already “clean”) apples for a minute while getting the kids ready to go out for the day, and then this happened: a soapy, dirty spot on my counter.
I couldn’t believe how much dirt came off the “already clean” apple! And I didn’t even scrub it!
I decided I needed to see if other products, including homemade produce washes, would have similar results. I tested the following:
- Shaklee H2 diluted with water, about a Tbs to 9 oz. (what we use for handsoap sometimes)
- Biokleen produce wash, diluted 1 part soap, 2 parts water
- Target brand milk and honey handsoap (Softsoap knockoff), diluted 1 part soap, 2 parts water
- I was told diluted Sal Suds was supposed to be a produce wash, so I just used this old (failed) dishwasher detergent with Sal Suds. Close enough!
- Vinegar water and hydrogen peroxide water in separate spray bottles, as described here
- Passionate Homemaking’s homemade produce wash using vinegar/water/baking soda (still bubbly from being mixed up)
- (not pictured) plain water and scrubbing
- The old-fashioned method of rubbing the apple on your pants
I found that Biokleen produce wash is the winner, hands down. So much dirt visibly comes off, and I don’t know for sure about pesticides and chemicals, but I’m encouraged by the dirt!
I also did a scrub test – put cleaner on the apple and scrub with a wet brush. Here are the results:
Even though my photos are old and hard to see, believe me, I still remember this super fun test! Biokleen is still the clear winner. Anything without suds-cutting soap didn’t really do much with or without the scrubbing, although it may have helped after rinsing (at which point I could no longer see effectiveness).
After all of the produce wash testing, I got to wondering about the ol’ rub-in-on-your-leg apple clean. My dad, an old Polish man from a country town, always cleans apples this way. My father-in-law always scowls when I do it at the orchard and talks about what might be on those apples. I was dying to try it.
Our red delicious apples really have a lot of film on them, and when you shine them with a cloth (yes, it’s usually just my jeans) it makes a serious difference. They go from foggy to truly shiny.
I experimented by rubbing an apple until shiny on a cloth, then put the produce wash on and let sit. There was nothing underneath! I am super pumped about this result. It echoes my research on soaps when I found that really, it’s all about (okay, mostly about) the scrubbing to release the dirt/germs and the water to wash them away.
My third place winner is hand soap. I don’t know if you want to risk eating whatever’s in your hand soap, but then again, we eat with our *washed* hands, right, so what’s the difference? If you have a “natural” hand soap (we use Branch Basics in a foaming pump), what a great, easy, frugal, don’t-take-up-any-more-space-on-my-counter alternative to get cleaner fruits and veggies!
How Do You Naturally Clean Produce?
Biokleen’s produce wash claims that it “effectively removes pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, waxes and soil.” When I started trying to incorporate it into my routine, two things got in my way:
- You have to leave it on the produce for a minute before washing. I usually need to wash and cut right away, so this was an interesting hurdle.
- The bottle has a large opening, so I always felt like I was using too much soap.
I solved the second problem by mixing 1/3 of the bottle with water in a re-used foaming hand soap pump like I do for regular hand soap. This will dilute it a bit, making the somewhat pricey bottle stretch further, and I just hoped I wasn’t diluting its effectiveness too much. Having it in a one-hand-to-use pump bottle allows me to use it a LOT more.
Remembering to wash my produce a minute before I needed to prepare it is trickier. I find that I use the Biokleen some of the time, and I just have to skip it other times.
How Do You Make Your Own Fruit and Vegetable Wash?
The top three methods for cleaning produce don’t involve anything DIY: Biokleen, rubbing with pants or cloth and hand soap. But if you don’t feel like those fit your needs, you can make your own fruit and vegetable wash.
By far the easiest fruit and vegetable wash recommended out there is equal parts vinegar and water, which should be a very mild antiseptic spray. Even though I couldn’t see dirt particles coming off the apples with this version, perhaps it does some “cleaning” of other ways in the germs and fungus arena.
Spray it on your produce or let the produce soak in the solution anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. Many people fill a sink with water, add a glug of vinegar, and put all their produce in it.
Then scrub or rinse. You can also add a little bit of baking soda to the produce for extra scrubbing power, but you’d have to do it separately from the vinegar or the two will react immediately and neutralize one another! Too many people share recipes (like this one) that include both – a hoop to jump through end up with nothing much!
Another similar option is apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and water (get the recipe here).
Or check out these simple tips from Wellness Mama about how to wash different types of produce.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links from which I will earn a commission. See my full disclosure statement here.
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