In a perfect world, we’d all be shopping at farmer’s markets for our pesticide-free or organic produce, tending to bug-eating, orange yolk-producing chickens in our backyards, pooling our resources with other folks to divvy up grass-fed and/or pastured animals, having the farmers who produce our food over for dinner, going mushroom hunting in the forest, ensnaring chubby winter squirrels fattened on acorns and small birds, raising kale-fed crickets for alternative protein sources, and, well, you get the idea.
But that isn’t realistic for most people. And heck, who would want to go to all the trouble? What with how easy it is to just swing by the grocery store on the way home from work, especially with a filthy kid in the backseat who’s just out of soccer practice (on a muddy field, no less) and starving?
However, we still want to make the best choices when we can. We want to buy the organic foods that provide the most bang for their buck, the ones that make the most sense. You’ve probably heard of the EWG’sDirty Dozen, an annually updated list of the twelve fruits and vegetables that contain the highest levels of pesticide residues. Let’s go beyond that, though. Unless you’re a vegan or a fruitarian who lives on produce alone, you’ll want to hear about other types of foods too, particularly animal products.
The following list is very roughly ordered from most important to least according to me. After baby food, dairy, and beef, the lines blur, though. Who wins (loses?) in a head-to-head for dirtiest between berries and greens, two foods that are otherwise healthy and worthy Primal staples? Luckily, this is just a thought exercise rather than a real dilemma for most. So let’s get to it.
1. Baby foods
The human infant is cute and lovable, sure, but they can’t be relied upon to make good food choices. And because of their ridiculously long development time, babies are far more susceptible to pesticides, especially the endocrine disruptors. An adult can probably get away with a little xenoestrogenic activity from consumed pesticides, but pesticides can disrupt both fetal and childhood development.
While environmental exposure to pesticides is impossible to avoid altogether, kids who get more organic vegetables have fewer harmful organophosphate metabolites in their urine compared to kids who eat more conventionally produced foods.1So if your kid has moved on to solid food, prioritize organic, whether you make it from scratch or buy it at the store. That goes for the “traditional” pureed goop people give their kids, as well as the foods Primal parents are likely to offer, like liver, egg yolks, and pureed moose thyroid glands. (What, you’re not giving your baby moose thyroid?)
2. Full-fat dairy
Dairy isn’t universally lauded in the Primal community, but I’d guess most Mark’s Daily Apple readers eat some kind of dairy, whether it’s butter, yogurt, cream, or milk. If for whatever reason you’re unable to procure dairy from grass-fed cows (which I’m increasingly seeing on conventional grocery store shelves thanks to consumer demand), make sure the full-fat dairy you do eat is organic.
Organic dairy ensures a couple things. First, USDA rules stipulate that organic dairy cows must graze on pasture for the full length of the local grazing season, during which time they must obtain at least 30 percent of their calories from grazing.2 Local grazing seasons last at least 120 days, but often much longer, so your organic dairy will be coming from cows who eat at least a decent amount of fresh, actual grass.
Second, anything the cows eat must be organic (feed) or organically managed (pastures). Conventional dairy cows eat conventional, pesticide-laden corn and soy, and those pesticides show up in their full-fat dairy products.
Organic meat cows must meet the same guidelines as organic dairy cows, so their meat is going to have at least a portion of the same benefits as fully grass-fed meat, like improved CLA content, greater micronutrient status, and better flavor (if you like the actual taste of beef, that is). They’re not entirely grass-fed, true, but they’re far better than conventional meat. Although organic meat from grocery stores will likely be raised on soy and corn, the feed will be neither genetically modified nor laden with pesticides. And organic animals aren’t allowed to receive antibiotics, nor are they pumped full of hormones.
Most pesticides and contaminants preferentially accumulate in the adipose tissue, so especially make sure the fatty meat you eat is organic.3
Conventional chickens are eating Roundup-ready corn and soy that’s been dosed with pesticides. Perhaps the biggest concern, though, is that the fat-soluble pesticides used to produce chicken feed readily make their way into the chicken tissues that we end up eating.4
Analyses of organic compared to conventionally raised chicken find that meat from the organic birds contains more protein, more fatty acids that serve vital functions in the body, and more iron (but less magnesium).567
I’ll always say that eggs from pastured chickens—organic or not—are the best, but when comparing normal grocery store eggs to organic grocery store eggs, I’d strongly suggest organic. The fat-soluble pesticides in chicken feed transfer to the egg yolks as well as the chicken tissues. You always want to minimize the chickens’ exposure to pesticides.
When your chickens are pastured, they’re getting a lot of their nutrition from bugs, grasses, scraps, and other sources, rather than just from grains. You can afford to skip organic in that case because the portion of feed with pesticides is relatively minor. If you’re dealing with primarily grain-fed poultry, though, going organic is the best way to minimize pesticide exposure.
6. Leafy greens
Surface area, surface area, surface area. Leafy greens—spinach, kale, lettuce, chard, collards, and the like—are virtually all surface area. As such, the entirety of their corporeal manifestation is wholly exposed to whatever’s being sprayed or applied on the farm to kill pests, and it’s tough to remove. You can scrub a carrot and wash a cucumber with vigor, and they’ll stand it, but if you try to scrub a handful of mixed baby greens, you’ll shred the lot and end up with watery salad.
Another mark in favor of going organic with greens is that you eat so many of them. The average Big Ass Salad has hundreds of square inches of exposed leaf. That’s a lot of pesticide exposure, especially if you’re eating your leafy greens on a regular basis.
Not only are blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, and other berries subjected to some of the heaviest pesticide loads, they’re also among the most antioxidant-rich of all fruits and vegetables. When you let berries “fend for themselves” without the help of exogenous chemical protectants, they increase their own supply of endogenous chemical protectants—the polyphenols that provide so many of the benefits associated with their consumption. Organic blueberries, for example, are higher in total antioxidants, total phenolics, total anthocyanin, malic acid, and sugars than conventional blueberries.8 The same goes for organic strawberries, which are more nutritious and antioxidant-rich than conventionally-grown strawberries.9
You may not be eating many apples, but if you do, spring for organic. Apple routinely test high for chemical residue, and there’s also some evidence that organic apples have more polyphenols and greater antioxidant capacity than conventional apples.10 If you must buy conventional, wash your apples thoroughly using a baking soda or vinegar solution. Try 1 teaspoon of baking soda in 2 cups of water, and soak for 15 minutes.11
9. Anything else on the Dirty Dozen that’s a staple in your kitchen
This is sort of cheating, I know, but everyone’s different. One family might eat sautéed bell peppers every night, in which case they should probably spring for the organic versions to avoid eating the EWG’s third most contaminated item on a regular basis. Or another family might chow down on potatoes every day; if so, they should go organic on those. If you’re whipping up mirepoix for stock daily, go for organic celery.
Ultimately, in order to determine which foods should be consumed in the organic form, you must first establish which foods you eat the most. If this were a list intended for vegetarians, I wouldn’t include meat. If this were meant for a lactose-intolerant crowd, I wouldn’t mention dairy. The list isn’t an ironclad pronouncement that you must follow or risk death, dismemberment, terminal illness, or ejection from the Primal inner circle. It’s meant as a helpful guideline that I put together based on where I get my calories and the volume of the food I eat. Your personal list might look a little different.
Take a look at my reasoning, follow some of the links, and come up with your own list. Is it different? Identical? Let me know 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.