Conscience vs. Budget in the Vegetable Aisle: How to Pick Your Produce

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Wandering through the produce section of your local store can sometimes feel like running a gauntlet of uneasy moral choices. Organic or non-organic, cheap vs. expensive, locally grown or long-distance food, it often seems like every piece of fruit comes packaged with a set of uncomfortable choices ... and the wrong ones can lead to higher costs and poorer health.

In general, the answer is that compromise can be your friend. If your main goal is eating healthily, sometimes you'll need to pay more -- and sometimes you'll need to buy food that was grown halfway across the country. The key is realizing when you need to make an exception, and when you don't.

With that in mind, here are a few pointers to help you eat your best without breaking the bank.

When You Should Buy Organic ... and When You Shouldn't Worry

With all the horror stories surrounding pesticides and fertilizers, it's easy to understand why so many people have switched to organic fruits and vegetables. Organic veggies are grown without synthetically created chemical pesticide and fertilizers, genetically engineered proteins and ingredients, or sewage sludge, and they're not irradiated. For people who don't want their grapes to come with a side order of industrial chemicals, this can be a huge relief.

The thing is, as great as buying organic sounds, it doesn't always matter. For many fruits and vegetables, their skins and peels, plus standard preparation techniques, provide a natural barrier to pesticides. The Environmental Working Group, a corporation that focuses on sustainability, has identified "the Dirty Dozen" and "the Clean 15" -- 12 fruits and vegetables that you should try to buy organic, and 15 for which -- health-wise -- it doesn't matter.

The Dirty Dozen are strawberries, cherries, lettuce, grapes, spinach, bell peppers, celery, peaches, apples, nectarines, pears, and potatoes. For some, like strawberries and spinach, it's easy to see how their thin skins make them extra vulnerable to pests and diseases -- and, at the same time, easily contaminated by chemicals. Others, like peaches and apples, are tree fruits, which are liberally sprayed with pesticides. It also doesn't help that the dirty dozen are among the most popular fruits and veggies -- which means that they are grown in huge monoculture farms, which tend to use more chemicals.

The Clean 15 are asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangoes, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas, and sweet potatoes. In some cases, such as pineapples and cantaloupe, it's easy to see how thick skins could protect the fruits from pests and chemicals. In other cases, like onions, natural pesticides probably help things along. As for eggplants and asparagus, the fact that they are less popular means that they are grown in smaller tracts -- which have fewer of the problems that are generally associated with vast monocultures.

How Many Roads Must Your Food Drive Down?

Another common ethical food question is locally grown vs. long-distance produce. Trucking fruits and vegetables across the country, shipping them by boat -- or, worse, flying them -- releases tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year. As an added plus, locally-grown food takes less time to get to your table -- which means that it can often be more nutritious and have fewer chemicals than non-local foods.

There are also other issues. In terms of sustainability and economic growth, locally-grown foods support your local economy, especially if you buy them from independent farmers. They can also support food diversity, as small farms are less likely to rely on monocultures. And then there's the fact that fresher foods often taste better.

Of course, a lot can depend on where you live. Many areas -- including my home in New York -- can have very limited offerings in the winter. If I was a strict locavore, my December diet would lean heavily toward late season veggies, hardy, easily-preserved veggies like cabbages and potatoes, with frozen and pickled food thrown in for variety. And the pickles and frozen peas, of course, have their own problems, including large amounts of salt and lower levels of nutrients.

For that matter, the way your food is raised may have a major impact on its carbon footprint. As James E. McWilliams noted in Forbes, lamb production in New Zealand is less carbon-intensive than those in Great Britain, -- so much so that shipping lamb from the land of kiwis and hobbits is still less environmentally damaging than growing it in England. The same is true for those of us in the U.S.: often, it's less environmentally damaging to ship food from overseas farms than grow it locally.

When it comes right down to it, eating well is more important than eating local, which means that, if you have to decide between a locally-grown turnip and a non-local lemon in the middle of cold season, you're probably better off with the lemon. In other words, eat local if you can afford it, and import it when you can't.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.