Produce Without Pesticides

While our analysis of USDA pesticide data found that some foods still have worrisome levels of certain dangerous pesticides, it also offers insights into how you can limit your pesticide exposure now, and what government regulators should do to fix the problem in the long term.

Eat Lots of Low-Risk Produce
A quick scan of our ratings chart above makes one thing clear: There are lots of good options to choose from.

“That’s great,” says Amy Keating, a registered dietitian at CR. “You can eat a variety of healthy fruits and vegetables without stressing too much about pesticide risk, provided you take some simple steps at home.”

Your best bet is to choose produce rated low-risk or very low-risk in our analysis and, when possible, opt for organic instead of riskier foods you enjoy. Or swap in lower-risk alternatives for riskier ones. For example, try snap peas instead of green beans, cantaloupe in place of watermelon, cabbage or dark green lettuces for kale, and the occasional sweet potato instead of a white one.

But you don’t need to eliminate higher-risk foods from your diet. Eating them occasionally is fine. “The harm, even from the most problematic produce, comes from exposure during vulnerable times such as pregnancy or early childhood, or from repeated exposure over years,” Rogers says.

Switch to Organic When Possible
A proven way to reduce pesticide exposure is to eat organic fruits and vegetables, especially for the highest-risk foods. We had information about organically grown versions for 45 of the 59 foods in our analysis. Nearly all had low or very low pesticide risk, and only two domestically grown varieties—fresh spinach and potatoes—posed even a moderate risk.

Organic foods’ low-risk ratings indicate that the USDA’s organic certification program, for the most part, is working.

Pesticides aren’t totally prohibited on organic farms, but they are sharply restricted. Organic growers may use pesticides only if other practices—such as crop rotation—can’t fully address a pest problem. Even then, farmers can apply only low-risk pesticides derived from natural mineral or biological sources that have been approved by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

Less pesticide on food means less in our bodies: Multiple studies have shown that switching to an organic diet quickly reduces dietary exposure. Organic farming protects health in other ways, too, especially for farmworkers and rural residents, because pesticides are less likely to drift into the areas where they live or to contaminate drinking water.

And organic farming protects other living organisms, many of which are even more vulnerable to pesticides than we are. For example, organic growers can’t use a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, a group of chemicals that may cause developmental problems in young children—and is clearly hazardous to aquatic life, birds, and important pollinators including honeybees, wild bees, and butterflies.

The rub, of course, is price: Organic food tends to cost more—sometimes much more.

“That’s why, while we think it’s always worth considering organic produce, it’s most important for the handful of fruits and vegetables that pose the greatest pesticide risk,” Rogers says. He also says that opting for organic is most crucial for young children and during pregnancy, when people are extra vulnerable to the potential harms of the chemicals.

Watch Out for Some Imports
Overall, imported fruits and vegetables and those grown domestically are pretty comparable, with roughly an equal number of them posing a moderate or worse pesticide risk. But imports, particularly from Mexico, can be especially risky.

Seven imported foods in our analysis pose a very high risk, compared with just four domestic ones. And of the 100 individual fruit or vegetable samples in our analysis with the highest pesticide risk levels, 65 were imported. Most of those—52—came from Mexico, and the majority involved strawberries (usually frozen) or green beans (nearly all contaminated with acephate, the pesticide that’s prohibited for use on green beans headed to the U.S.).

A spokesperson for the Food and Drug Administration told CR that the agency is aware of the problem of acephate contamination on green beans from Mexico. Between 2017 and 2024, the agency has issued import alerts on 14 Mexican companies because of acephate found on green beans. These alerts allow the FDA to detain the firms’ food shipments until they can prove the foods are not contaminated with the illegal pesticide residues in question. The Fresh Produce Association of the Americas, which represents many major importers of fruits and vegetables from Mexico, did not respond to a request for comment.

Rogers says, “Clearly, the safeguards aren’t working as they are supposed to.” As a result, “consumers are being exposed to much higher levels of very dangerous pesticides than they should.” Because of those risks, he suggests checking packaging on green beans and strawberries for the country of origin, and consider other sources, including organic.