Vegetable Buying Tips

How can you tell if a vegetable is fresh? Which non‐organic vegetables are loaded with pesticides and which are virtually pesticide free? Thrifty health‐conscious shoppers can use the following tips to pick the best produce.

When to Buy Organic

If you’re like most people, you’d like to buy organic food, but you’re also on a budget. One strategy is to know which commercially‐grown, non‐organic vegetables contain the most pesticides and which contain the least. Buy organic for those vegetables high in pesticides and buy conventionally‐grown for those low in pesticides.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) used data collected by the US Department of Agriculture to determine pesticide levels in common fruits and vegetables. Vegetables with the highest levels of pesticides were sweet bell peppers, celery, spinach, lettuce, and potatoes. Those with the lowest pesticide levels were onions, sweet corn (frozen), asparagus, sweet peas (frozen), cabbage and broccoli. In the middle ground (ranking from highest to lowest pesticide residues) were carrots, green beans, hot peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, winter squash and cauliflower.

The EWG found that three quarters of the broccoli, peas and cabbage they tested contained no detectable pesticide residues. Onions, sweet corn and asparagus had no detectable residues in 90 percent of the samples tested. On the other hand, 94 percent of celery samples had pesticide residues, as did 81 percent of sweet bell peppers and potatoes. Sweet bell peppers rated highest in most pesticides in a single sample (11) and most pesticides overall (64).

The bottom line: try to buy organic sweet bell peppers, celery, spinach, lettuce and potatoes. If you need to save money, buy conventionally‐grown onions, sweet corn, asparagus, sweet peas, cabbage and broccoli.

Some organic vegetables are relatively good bargains anyway, with a price comparable or just slightly higher than conventionally‐grown vegetables. Good bets include carrots, Romaine lettuce, tomatoes and potatoes.

Buying organic vegetables, you may actually get more for your money since you can use the whole plant. While you should peel conventionally‐grown root vegetables and strip away outer leaves on non‐organic greens to remove pesticide residues, this is unnecessary with organic vegetables.

Tips by Vegetable


Look for aubergines with bright, glossy skins. Avoid those with any signs of shriveling or green near the stem.


Look for beetroot that still has about half an inch (1.3 cm) of stem attached – this will keep the beetroot from “bleeding” when cooked. Generally beetroot should be less than 3 inches (7.5 cm) in diameter: large beetroot may be tough and woody. Buy beetroot with the bright green leaves still attached and you get two vegetables in one.


Did you know that broccoli heads – the florets – have more nutrients than the stems? If there’s little difference in price between broccoli florets and broccoli with stems, choose the florets. If you buy broccoli with stems, however, eat the stems: while they don’t contain as many nutrients as the florets, they’re still good for you. Thin stems will be more tender. Broccoli florets should have tightly‐packed buds with no signs of yellow flowers beginning to emerge.


The freshest, most tender carrots still have the green tops attached. Tops deteriorate quickly, so it’s easy to tell they’re fresh: avoid tops that are slimy, yellow or wilting. Packaged carrots without the stems are more readily available. Carrots should be firm, not flabby and show no signs of sprouting or splitting. Bagged miniature (baby) carrots are convenient but more expensive.


Inspect heads closely and avoid purchasing those with any tiny black mold spots.

Lettuce, Spinach and Leafy Greens

Buy organic lettuce and spinach to avoid high levels of pesticide residues. If you buy organic leafy greens, you can safely eat the outer leaves, which contain the most vitamin C. Avoid greens that show signs of wilting or yellowing, as well as lettuces with any russeting (brown spots).

Spinach deteriorates quickly: inspect packaged spinach closely. Loose spinach has a strong odor when it starts to deteriorate. Steamed kale is a good spinach substitute: although its leaves look tough when raw, its very tender when cooked: it tastes a lot like spinach and it keeps much longer in the refrigerator.

Packaged salad mixes are good for those with little time for meal preparation, but creating your own mix is much less expensive.

Sweet corn

Fresh sweet corn should be purchased from a farm shop or farmers market or a green grocers that buys daily from a local grower. Sweet corn converts sugar to starch very quickly and should be cooked as soon after picking as possible. Look for fully‐formed kernels all the way to the tip of the ear. Pre‐husked, shrink‐wrapped corn is often not a good value: it may be old and starchy. Frozen corn, processing within hours of picking, retains its sweetness, is a good value and contains few pesticides.


Look for firm, dry onions with no signs of soft spots or green sprouts.


While sweet bell peppers are loaded with nutrients, they’re also loaded with pesticides. Try to buy organic. Consider growing your own, as organic peppers can be very expensive.


Buy organic potatoes and don’t peel them before cooking – the skins are high in antioxidants. (Actually, it’s the pulp just under the skins, but it’s virtually impossible to peel a potato without peeling away the pulp.) Avoid potatoes with green spots or those starting to sprout.


Choose pumpkins and winter squash with the stems still attached – this prevents rotting at the stem end. Pick a winter squash that feels heavier than its same‐size counterpart: it will have a higher amount of edible flesh. Summer squash should be firm with no soft spots or shriveling, however a few scratches or bruises won’t hurt. Smaller summer squash are preferred as they have fewer seeds; if large, their skins may be too tough.

String Beans

Avoid beans that feel limp or those that are pitted with brown spots. Larger beans plump with seeds may be too old and tough – look for slim, brightly‐coloured pods.


Buy smaller – preferably organic ‐ tomato varieties such as grape, cherry or plum tomatoes, which have a higher proportion of skin to pulp. As Steven Pratt and Kathy Matthews point out in their book SuperFoods, the greater the proportion of skin to interior fruit, the higher the level of antioxidants. This is one reason why blueberries and cranberries are so high in antioxidants and the same holds true for tomatoes.

Learn a little about vegetables and save a lot – and get better‐tasting, healthier vegetables in the bargain!

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