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updated: 7/20/2011 11:41 AM

When to go organic for fruits and veggies

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Buying organic fruits and vegetables to avoid or eliminate pesticide residues can put a crimp in any food budget.

And, if you've made an all-organic commitment, then the other items in your shopping cart, like peanut butter, breakfast cereal, milk, eggs and even coffee can be true budget-breakers.

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There's not much of a workaround for foodstuffs like milk and eggs; they're either organic or not. That's true for fruits and vegetables as well, but some nonorganic produce brings less or almost no pesticide along for the ride.

Here's how to know which is which.

The Environmental Working Group recently released its free 2011 Shopper's Guide for fruits and vegetables. The group's handy wallet-sized guide lists its "Dirty Dozen," the fruits and vegetables determined by the group to have the highest amount of pesticide residue, and its "Clean 15," produce with the lowest residues. All were rinsed or peeled before testing.

Just how did the group figure this out?

By crunching the numbers from 51,000 tests of traditional produce conducted by the USDA and FDA between 2000 and 2009. The numbers showed the cleanest fruits and vegetables had zero pesticide residues, while the dirtiest (peaches it turns out) were contaminated with possible combinations of 56 pesticides.

Onions, corn and pineapples topped the list as the safest to trim from your organic produce shopping list. Avocado, asparagus, sweet peas, mangos, eggplant, domestically grown cantaloupe, kiwi, cabbage, watermelon, sweet potatoes, grapefruit and mushrooms also landed on the "clean" list.

Consider switching from organic to locally grown produce for those items you can get from your area farmers market. Talk to the growers to learn how they grow what they bring to market.

By switching to traditional produce, you could cut your food bill down a few notches and be less concerned about what you or your kids eat. By wisely following the Clean 15 list it's possible to lower pesticide consumption by more than 90 percent.

The Dirty Dozen's a whole other story. Here you'll find, in order: apples, celery, strawberries, peaches, spinach, imported nectarines, imported grapes, bell peppers, potatoes, domestic blueberries, lettuce and kale/collard greens.

Instead of avoiding them all together, head to your farmers market or roadside stand and search for produce that may be grown without chemical pesticides. Talk to the folks there and ask questions. Often growers meet some or all organic standards, but haven't been certified (an expensive process beyond the ability of most smaller farms).

Or, head to the freezer cases at local supermarket or natural food store. That's where I find frozen organic blueberries, strawberries, peaches and (one of my favorites) spinach. Spinach is usually reasonably priced; but fruit can be pricey.

With this guide we can all make informed produce-buying decisions and save money in the process.

Try this recipe: In a hurry, I bought a pint of hummus and some baked pita chips and took them to a pool party. Later, I looked at the hummus nutrition label and found that 2 tablespoons delivered 6 fat grams -- not acceptable for this Lean Guy.

Here my leaner hummus (just 1.2 g fat per 2 tablespoons). It doesn't take long to make and it's full of flavor.

Don Mauer welcomes questions, comments and recipe makeover requests. Write him at don@theleanwizard.com.

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