The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15: When to Buy Organic

Should I buy organic? Does it matter? Is it worth the extra cost? If I can’t afford to buy everything organic, how do I choose which foods to splurge on and which ones to save on?

The Environmental Working Group creates a Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, updated yearly, that ranks pesticide contamination on 48 popular fruits and vegetables. The guide is based on results of samples tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration. (Get your free guide here!) 

The Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 is a guide to help you know which fruits and vegetables to buy organically. Studies have shown that pesticides can penetrate the fruit or veggie, and then in turn not be good for our bodies. These lists are based off where the fruit/veggie lands on the pesticide scale, and can help you understand which are the worst and least contaminated. 


A pesticide is a chemical used to kill bugs or fungus that are harmful to the growth of plants or animals. Pesticides are meant to kill living things that are considered “pests.” But, pesticides can also be harmful to our bodies if ingested, and many pesticides have been linked to a variety of health problems.

It’s important to note that there have not been many studies done on the effects of pesticides on people. But a lack of data on the topic is not enough to confirm pesticides’ safety. For further information on the data available, check out the Environmental Working Group’s frequently asked questions about pesticides and people

When you buy fresh fruit or veggies you think you are making the right choices for your family (and eating conventional produce is better than no produce at all!). But the fact is that you could be introducing them to harmful pesticides. Even washing or peeling may not help because some pesticides penetrate the skin of the fruit or veggie. Additionally, pesticide testing is done on fruits and veggies that have already been washed and peeled, so it would not change their ranking to do so.

The fruits and veggies with the highest pesticide levels are on the Dirty Dozen list. (15 or more pesticides were found on some of them!) 98% of strawberries, peaches, nectarines, and apples tested positive for residue. The potato had more pesticides by weight than any other veggie. A single grape had 15 pesticides on it. When you are trying to buy healthy choices for your family, these are the foods that are mostly likely to have high residues of pesticides.  

(The Dirty Dozen does not limit it to only 12 fruits and veggies. The list grows every year.)

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Nectarines
  • Peaches
  • Celery
  • Grapes
  • Spinach
  • Cherries
  • Tomatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Cucumbers
  • Hot peppers
  • Collard greens 

 dirty dozen clean 15 organic

Clean 15

The Clean 15 is a list made up of fruits and veggies less likely to hold pesticides. Avocados are the cleanest veggie; less than 1% of them tested had a pesticide on them. No single fruit or veggie from this list tested positive for more than 4 pesticides. If you can’t afford to buy organic for all of your produce, you can choose conventionally-grown versions of the foods on this list and save some money!

Some of the fruits or veggies on this list are:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbage
  • Frozen sweet peas
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Mangoes
  • Papayas
  • Kiwi
  • Eggplant
  • Honeydew melon
  • Grapefruit
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower

Buying Organic

Buying organic is a great way to limit your pesticide exposure and support environmentally-friendly farming practices. I am lucky to have a husband that helps me plant a big garden every year. I put away most of the food from our garden, plus make fresh meals almost every night in the summer. We don’t rely on the store for our tomatoes, corn, carrots, potatoes, asparagus, peppers, and more. We also have three apple trees and a bunch of raspberry bushes. (Someday we plan on expanding our orchard!)

When I do go to the store to get produce, buying organic always costs more than regular fruits and veggies. It can be hard to spend more, but knowing which fruits and veggies are on each list can help you decide which ones to buy organic and which are okay to buy conventional. I know more and more people are buying organic, so my hope is someday the prices of organic foods will come down. Here are some stores that I shop at to find organic food items: Aldi’s, Hy-Vee, & Natural Grocers.

 dirty dozen clean 15 organic

 It’s always good to wash produce from the store to get the dirt and dust off of it from shipping or from sitting in the store. To clean your produce, whether you buy organic or conventionally-grown, try this recipe for a simple produce wash, which can be used as a spray, rinse, or soak. 

Ultimately, we are all doing our best to provide for our families, and buying 100 percent organic is not feasible for everyone. With the knowledge of the Dirty Dozen and Clean 15, however, we can make informed choices and limit exposure to pesticides for ourselves and our families.


Amber has called Iowa home all her life. She and her husband Jeremy live on an acreage just south of Traer where they raise their 6 blue eyed, blonde haired babes. Amber is a stay at home mama to 3 girls ages 12, 9, & 4 and 3 boys ages 2,1, & 7 months. Amber earned an AAS in Early Childhood Education at Hawkeye Community College. She also spent 9 years in the Iowa Army National Guard. Amber is always busy attending Redhawk sporting events, 4­H meetings, teaching RE classes at St. Paul, reading stories, playing house, cooking, feeding various animals, & running around after her kids. In her spare time (ha!) she likes to can produce out of the huge garden her husband plants every year, read a book to the end, watch a good movie (that she normally falls asleep in the middle of) and spend time with Jeremy, which is normally at Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling Meets! Go Hawks!


  1. This is definitely information to share with those you love and even those you don’t know :). I carry the list of the dirty dozen/clean fifteen in my purse and occasionally find myself pulling it out when grocery shopping. I’ve even carried an extra copy and shared it with a stranger when they are staring at the produce and you know they are questioning the choice they should make. I’ve recently discovered the Natural Grocers Store opening in my area and am now a weekly shopper there.


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