One of the core pillars of health is eating the best quality food possible, whether that means choosing organic, local, pesticide-free, grass-fed, pasture-raised, wild-caught, or non-GMO. Realistically, though, most people have to choose non-organic (or otherwise conventional) food sometimes. The top-tier options may not be available year-round where you live. Even if they are, they might not fit your budget.
This isn’t to say that there’s no difference between organic and conventional. Even though the following non-organic foods are relatively safe, some would argue that you should always buy organic if possible to support organic growers and reduce agricultural chemicals in the environment. That’s valid—and part of the reason why I try to buy organic—but it’s also a topic for another time. The goal today is to help you prioritize where to spend your hard-earned money while maximizing your and your family’s health.
So, what Primal staples can you buy conventional?
7 Non-Organic Foods You Can Feel Good About
Coconut and Coconut Products
Primal and paleo folks love our coconut. We sauté with coconut oil and make smoothies and curries with coconut milk and cream. We create gluten-free alternatives for things like pancakes and cookies with the help of coconut flour. And when we’ve been running or training particularly hard, coconut water provides much-needed electrolytes (plus some sugar that you might or might not want).
Luckily for us, it doesn’t look like organic versus conventional coconut makes a big difference. Several studies have looked for pesticide residues in coconut products and come up virtually empty-handed. There’s a 2010 study, which was unable to detect any pesticide residues in crude coconut oil.1 Other studies have found low or undetectable levels of pesticides in coconut pulp,2 crude and refined coconut oil,3 and coconut water.45 Coconut milk is also going to be as free from pesticides as any other coconut product.
Onions don’t just make you cry when chopping them, they make pests weep at the thought of eating them. Onions are naturally resistant to pests, so there’s no need to douse them with tons of pesticides. It’s no surprise, then, that onions are consistently near the top of the EWG’s Clean 15 list.6 Most of the 333 chemicals the USDA tests as part of their Pesticide Data Program (PDP) are undetectable on onions year after year.7 The small minority that do show up on tests all come in well under EPA Tolerance Levels.
There is also very little, if any, advantage to organic onions from a health perspective. Unlike many other fruits and vegetables, conventionally grown onions have the same level of polyphenols as organically grown onions.8 So, feel free to go wild with conventional onions.
Conventional avocados are another safe food that ends up with some of the lowest pesticide residues around. 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 growers sometimes apply a significant amount of chemicals on avocado orchards, they don’t make it into the fatty, delicious flesh we crave and consume. Much like our friend the coconut, the hard outer shell offers pretty good defense. However, avocado farmers, both organic and conventional, do use extensive amounts of copper as a fungicide.9 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. (But do include them regularly, because avocados offer lots of health benefits.)
The idea of organic honey is appealing. 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 buzz around freely, and they’re not going to distinguish between organic and conventionally grown plants. I suppose you could surround your hives with only organic plant life, but considering bees have an average range of five kilometers (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. I’ve seen organic asparagus for sale at my local grocery store for $17.99 per pound!
Luckily, asparagus is one of the cleanest vegetables around. Checking in once again with the USDA (PDP) database, the vast majority of samples test free of residue.10 Organic might eliminate the 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.
Low-carb is cool, but the athletes, lifters, highly active folks among us sometimes want a bit more 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. To deter this, processors sometimes dunk the tubers in a dicloran bath before packing and shipping. Dicloran (a fungicide, not to be confused with the flame retardant known as dichloran) is the only chemical to show up consistently in conventional sweet potatoes. Though dicloran is sometimes listed as a possible carcinogen, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that “Dicloran has no genotoxic or carcinogenic potential relevant to humans.”11 Still, if you’re concerned, peel your sweet potatoes.
I’ve mentioned this before, but farmed bivalves 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 hang out 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, 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.12 While they found extensive usage of parasiticides, anesthetics, spawning hormones, oxidants, disinfectants, and herbicides in fish and shrimp farming, there was only one instance of chemical usage in bivalve farming: Northwest U.S. 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).
Long story short, regular old farmed bivalves are perfectly fine—and I recommend you eat them regularly.
How to Choose Between Organic and Conventional Produce
These are my top suggestions for foods that are fine to buy conventional, but what about when you’re standing in the supermarket and have to make a decision on the fly? Here are some guidelines to follow:
Check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists, which they update annually (though they stay pretty consistent). Whenever possible, get organic for the Dirty Dozen. Otherwise, get what’s available.
Prioritize organic for leafy greens and produce with thin, edible skins. Anything you peel will take most of the residue into the compost pile with the food scraps.
When shopping at a local farmer’s market, ask the growers about their farming methods. Many small farms can’t afford the organic certification but nevertheless avoid inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides. You can feel great about eating what they grow.
Finally, remember that frozen fruits and vegetables are just as nutritious as fresh. If you can’t find what you want in the produce section, check the freezer.
That’s what I’ve got, folks. 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.