If you’re concerned about the pesticides in the fruits and vegetables you eat, you’re not alone. According to a survey of 1,050 people done by Consumer Reports, 85 percent of Americans have concerns about the pesticides in their produce. With studies that show that exposure to pesticides may be a contributing to factor to health issues like food allergies, Parkinson's, ADHD and autism, the concern is justifiable.

Because of these concerns Consumer Reports released “Rules to Shop By,” a risk guide for conventional produce. This guide has more thorough information at a glance than the Environmental Working Group’s “Shopper’s Guide to Produce.”

Consumer Reports analyzed 12 years of data from the Department of Agriculture’s Pesticide Data Program. It looked at produce according to the country of origination and puts it into one of five risk categories, based on the risk to a 3 1/2-year-old child, estimated to weigh 35.2 pounds.

  • Very low: 100 or more daily servings
  • Low: 10 to 100 daily servings
  • Medium: 5 to 10 daily servings
  • High: 1 to 5 daily servings
  • Very high: 1 daily serving
Don't be thrown by the number of servings in the list above. The chart and research are based on what's called an FS-DRI score (Food Supply-Dietary Risk Index), which determines how many daily servings would push you over the healthy limit of pesticide intake. It's unlikely that you'll eat 100 or more daily servings of any food item, so that puts the very low risk into perspective.

While the EWG’s guide ranks apples as the top produce you should always buy organic, Consumer Reports' guide shows that conventional apples from New Zealand are low risk, but conventional apples from the U.S. are high risk. Therefore, the guide doesn’t recommend that apples should always be bought organic. If you can find conventional apples from New Zealand, the Consumer Reports' guide suggests they’re OK to buy conventional because “conventional items in the low or very low categories are essentially equivalent to organic.”

Consumer Reports suggests only 10 fruits and vegetables should always be bought organic because the data shows that no matter which country they come from they always are medium risk or higher.

  • Peaches
  • Tangerines
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Cranberries
  • Green Beans
  • Sweet Bell Peppers
  • Hot Peppers
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Carrots
The biggest eye opener for me in the guide is that U.S. green beans are very high risk. One daily serving of conventional green beans from the U.S. has an unsafe level of pesticides.

I was also surprised to see how many different fruits and vegetables are safer when they come from countries like Mexico or Guatemala than when they come from the U.S. While I don’t believe the United States has a legal limit on the number of pesticides allowed on food, I did think that our regulations were stricter so conventional produce from the U.S. would have fewer pesticides. I don’t know when or where I picked up that opinion, but it looks like I need to change it.

For example, cantaloupe from Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala all fall in the very low or low risk categories. U.S. cantaloupe fall into the high risk category. The findings are similar for winter squash.

It takes some time to read through the Consumer Reports guide and get a handle on which produce they recommend buying conventional. If your grocery budget doesn’t allow for buying only organic, the guide is helpful for choosing conventional fruits and vegetables. If you can determine from the packaging or from the signs in the grocery store where the produce originated and compare it to the information on the “Rules to Shop By” guide, you may find what you choose conventional and what you choose organic will change a bit.

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Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Pesticide guide keeps you safe on the produce aisle
Consumer Reports’ risk guide helps shoppers make informed decisions when buying fruits and vegetables.