Organic or Non Organic, That Is the Question

September 18, 2015

My friend and colleague David Steinman generously offered to help me explain the importance of organic foods. David is a journalist, environmentalist, and consumer advocate. His book Diet for a Poisoned Planet grew out of his own personal concern for what was really in the food he was eating. What began as an investigation into contaminants found in the fish in the Santa Monica Bay has grown into a lifelong mission to educate consumers and fight for cleaner, more nutritious foods.

In this world of chemically grown and genetically modified crops, there are big differences in the way our favorite fruits and vegetables are grown. Some crops are sprayed with far more pesticides than others, and some absorb more pesticides than others into their edible parts. These differences in pesticide saturation are very significant. The bottom line for predicting health risks associated with any particular toxic chemical exposure is that the more frequently one is exposed and the higher the level of exposure, the greater the risk. Conversely, the less frequently one is exposed and the lower the concentration, the lower the risk. It is that simple.

Vegetable and Fruit Survival Guide

In order to determine which vegetables and fruits are safest, David and I examined detailed government food inspectors’ reports and private studies of chemical residues in more than 150 fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds. What we found most useful was a huge research effort called the Total Diet Study, an ongoing study conducted by the Food and Drug Administration. It is the most accurate assessment ever made of pesticide contamination of our food supply.

The Total Diet Study measures the total number of residues found in some thirty-six market basket samples, including fresh and canned fruits and vegetables. I have included only fresh foods here for my purposes. Organic fruits and vegetables are the safest fruits and vegetables available (with little or no pesticide residues), and I strongly recommend that you seek out organic produce, especially as a substitute for the most pesticide-saturated foods. Organic farming is booming in this country as consumers demand safe, purer foods.

Organic foods are not readily available everywhere, and for many people their higher cost is a burden. David has worked long and hard to show people which foods are safe and which foods are so high in pesticide residues that organic or other substitutes are advisable.

He has divided foods into “green light,” “yellow light” and “red light” categories. I trust that what this means is obvious. Green light foods are your safest choices. Yellow light foods are more saturated; cut down on them and, when possible, buy organic. And red light foods are considered the most toxic to our bodies.

This division of foods into green light, yellow light, and red light groupings is a simplification of a huge amount of data. The goal in dividing food this way has been to make it clear that there are significant differences in the toxicity of different foods.

As you will see, while there are lots of options to buy non-organic veggies and fruits safely, note that many…many of the staples you use every day are best if you can choose organic.


Green Light

  • Grapefruit
  • Watermelon
  • Bitter melon
  • Limes (unless using the rind; then organic is preferred)
  • Coconut
  • Papayas
  • Dates
  • Passion fruit
  • Figs
  • Pineapples
  • Guavas
  • Plantains
  • Lemons (like limes, unless using the rind; then organic is preferred)
  • Tangerines

Yellow Light

  • Applesauce
  • Bananas
  • Cantaloupe
  • Oranges (if using the rind, go with organic)
  • Prunes
  • Blackberries
  • Honeydew
  • Blueberries
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Casaba
  • Kumquats
  • Cranberries
  • Nectarines
  • Crenshaw melons
  • Persimmons
  • Currants
  • Pomegranates

Red Light

  • Apples
  • Apricots
  • Cherries (sweet, raw)
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Raisins
  • Strawberries


Green Light

  • Asparagus
  • Black-eyed Peas (cowpeas)
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Eggplant
  • Green peas (fresh/frozen).
  • Lima Beans (mature)
  • Okra (fresh/frozen)
  • Onions
  • Peas
  • Pinto beans
  • Radishes
  • Red Beans
  • Sauerkraut (canned)
  • Snap green beans
  • Alfalfa sprouts
  • Adzuki beans
  • Bean sprouts
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Daikon
  • Fava beans
  • Fennel root
  • Garlic
  • Jicama
  • Kidney beans
  • Leeks
  • Lentils
  • Mushrooms (fresh)
  • Navy beans
  • Radicchio
  • Rapini
  • Red chard
  • Rhubarb
  • Shallots
  • Watercress
  • Yams

Yellow Light

  • Avocados
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Iceberg lettuce
  • Lima beans (immature)
  • Radishes
  • Turnips
  • Winter squash
  • Artichokes
  • Bok choy
  • Chili peppers
  • Dandelion greens
  • Dill
  • Endive
  • Escarole
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Mung beans
  • Mustard greens
  • Okra
  • Parsley
  • Parsnips
  • Pumpkin
  • Radishes
  • Rutabagas
  • Soybeans
  • String beans
  • Swiss chard
  • Tomatillos
  • Turnip greens

Red Light

  • Celery
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • Collard green
  • Corn (only guarantee it’s non-GMO is if organic)
  • Cucumbers
  • Green peppers
  • Potatoes
  • Snow Peas
  • Summer squash
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Tomatoes