A couple weeks ago, I gave you a list of the top 10 foods you should strive to buy organic. Some of you found the list useful, while others felt a bit overwhelmed and disheartened by the information, saying that it felt like they couldn’t eat anything that wasn’t organic. Today, I’ll try to make things a little better by giving you a list of the foods which are perfectly fine in their conventional form. However, even if the following conventional foods are relatively safe for your health, some would argue that you should still buy organic in order to support the workers and protect the environments exposed to agricultural chemicals. That’s totally valid, and it’s part of the reason why I try to buy organic, but it’s not what I’m discussing here. It’s a topic for another time. Today is about maximizing the health of you and your family while cutting costs when and where you can.
So, what common, Primal staples can you buy conventional?
You won’t see coconut on any Clean 15 or Dirty Dozen lists anytime soon, because the general public has yet to catch on to its fatty, nutty delights. That said, we Primal people eat coconut. We sauté with coconut oil and slather it onto vegetables, sweet potatoes, hair, skin, and armpits. We drink and make curries with coconut milk and cream. We obsess over coconut butter, paying tribute to its glory with a greasy spoon. And when we’ve been running or training particularly hard – or it’s hot out – we often reach for the coconut water. We like our coconut, so it’s in our best interest to determine whether we should be buying organic or not.
Luckily for us, it doesn’t look like organic coconut makes a big difference. Several studies have looked for pesticide residues in coconut products and come up virtually empty handed. There’s this 2008 study, which was unable to detect any pesticide residues in crude coconut oil. Poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, which are generated during the coconut flesh quick drying process and are carcinogenic, were detected in crude coconut oil but were removed in the refining process. Virgin unrefined coconut oil, then, may still contain these hydrocarbons, unless it’s wet-milled and processed without quick-drying the flesh. That goes for both organic and conventional coconut oil, to be clear.
In another study, researchers examined 15 samples of coconut water using two different methods of pesticide detection and were unable to detect any of the 11 pesticides they were looking for.
Coconut milk is also going to be as free from pesticides as any other coconut product. Since it’s made from fresh flesh, not the dried, heat-treated stuff, coconut milk should also be free of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons.
Onions don’t just make you cry for cutting them, they make pests weep at the thought of eating them. Onions are naturally resistant to pests, which is probably why just 0.3% of onions tested for chemical residue came up positive. Big Agra may cut corners and prioritize profit over quality or consumer health, but that just means they won’t fork out the money for chemicals if they don’t have to; they’re not comic book villains, dumping drums of noxious endocrine disruptors and carcinogens onto their crops to punish us. Not onion farmers, at least.
Avocados are another safe food that ends up with some of the lowest pesticide residues around. Maybe it’s the scaly skin and the way they just kinda “lurk” there up in tree tricking pests into thinking they’re up against alligators. Maybe it’s the fact that a bug got burned one too many times with a beautiful looking avocado that turned out to be stringy and brown on the inside. Maybe pests just hate waiting for an avocado to ripen (who doesn’t?) and give up. Actually, even though a somewhat significant amount of chemicals can be used on avocado orchards, they just don’t make it into the fatty, delicious flesh we crave and consume.
Avocado farmers, both organic and conventional, do use extensive amounts of copper as a fungicide. Copper is an essential nutrient, but too much can be harmful. A single Florida avocado contains 0.9 mg, which is about 100% of the RDI, so don’t go around eating several a day.
The idea of organic honey is fantastic – who wouldn’t want to eat honey produced by bees who dined exclusively on organic, wild, untouched, pure flowers? I sure would.
But the reality is that bees will be bees. They’re going to buzz around and get into trouble, and they’re not going to distinguish between organic and conventionally-grown plants. I suppose you could surround the bee with only organic plant life, but considering bees have an average range of five kilometers from the hive (and twice that when food is scarce), you’d have to control a lot of land to do it. Plus, you know how bees have those cute furry bodies? Yeah, that fur picks up all sorts of stuff from the air. Not only do you have to worry about non-organic pollen, you also have to contend with every non-organic airborne particle in the area.
Buy local honey. Buy raw honey. Buy honey from someone who raised the bees and (at least kinda sorta) knows where they spend their time. But don’t shell out extra money for organic honey unless you happen to really like that particular honey. Those first two characteristics – “local” and “raw” – should come before organic.
I love asparagus, but even I balk at the astronomical price of organic asparagus. Luckily, it’s one of the cleanest vegetables around. When you read that residues from nine different pesticides were found on it, though, you might get a little worried until you look a little closer and realize that the most prevalent of the chemicals – methomyl – was only detected on 3.3% of samples tested.
Organic might eliminate that small probability of pesticides showing up on your asparagus, but I don’t think it’s worth the price tag. Conventional should be just fine. If you’re really worried, domestic conventional (referring to the United States) is far better than imported conventional.
Sweet potatoes are a hardy bunch, and the hardy among us – the athletes, the lifters, the highly active – sometimes need a bit of dietary starch to fuel their efforts. Conventional sweet potatoes are a fine choice. Their leaves sometimes get eaten by bugs, but since that rarely affects the viability of the underground tubers that people actually eat, farmers generally don’t feel the need to protect the leaves with agrochemicals.
However, sweet potatoes do sometimes have a problem with fungal growth after harvesting, and the tubers have been known to receive a quick dunk in a dicloran bath before being packed and shipped to curtail this. Dicloran (not to be confused with the flame retardant known as dichloran) is a fungicide that gets a “possible carcinogen” rating from “What’s on my food?” It’s also the only chemical to show up consistently in conventional sweet potatoes. On average, a kilogram of sweet potatoes contains 1.69 mg of dicloran. Based on toxicology studies that suggest a dicloran upper limit of 0.14 mg per kg of bodyweight, a 60 kilogram human can easily get away with consuming up to 8.4 mg of dicloran. Peel your sweet potatoes and you’ll get rid of even more.
I’ve mentioned this before in a previous post on farmed seafood, but farmed oysters, clams, and mussels are essentially “wild.” They’re not kept in ponds, nor are they given pesticide-rich soy and corn topped off with unsustainable fishmeal. Instead, they sit there attached to their moorings in actual ocean water acting like the filter-feeders they are. For all intents and purposes, the farmed bivalves you eat are identical to wild ones. As such, there would be little point to eating “organic” shellfish.
In 2002 (PDF), Greenpeace did an exhaustive survey of all the chemicals used in aquaculture to find out whether consumers eating the end product had anything to worry about. And, while they found extensive usage of parasiticides, anaesthetics, spawning hormones, oxidants, disinfectants and herbicides in fish and shrimp farming, only one instance of chemical usage in bivalve farming was found: northwest US oyster farming sometimes used carbaryl, an organophosphate that inhibits acetylcholine esterase and increases the levels of acetylcholine in the brain (which kills parasites but can actually enhance human brain function, provided you eat or make enough choline).
Organic bivalve farming standards are being unveiled, but, since “conventional” bivalve farming doesn’t use chemicals, those new standards won’t affect the amount of chemical residues that end up on your plate. Instead, they’ll be focused on managing sediment buildup from bivalve farming, with no impact on the actual nutrition of the animals. Regular old farmed bivalves are perfectly fine – and I recommend you eat oysters, mussels, and clams regularly.
That’s what I’ve got, guys. I hope some of you are pleasantly surprised and feel a little more empowered to make educated decisions on whether to buy organic or not. Remember: you have to eat something, and conventional fruits, vegetables, and animals are way better than not eating fruits, vegetables and animals at all.
Thanks for reading, and be sure to let me know if I missed any foods in the comment section!
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.