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.
I’ve previously covered the top foods you should strive to buy organic. Today, I’ll try to make things a little easier by providing a list of the foods which are fine in their conventional form.
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?
For today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions from readers. First up, a Forbes columnist recently penned an anti-organic agriculture screed. In it, he makes the oft-repeated claim that organic is just a scam and really no different from conventional produce. Is he saying anything new — or useful? Should we avoid the often higher price tag of organic produce? The second comes from Susan, a healthy and active 70 year-old without any complaints — except that a midday nap is starting to sound more and more attractive every day. Could her low salt intake be the cause of her midday fatigue? Maybe. Next, what’s my take on Weston A. Price? How do his nutritional guidelines jibe with the Primal Blueprint?
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’s Dirty 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.
Over the past several weeks, I’ve laid out a considerable amount of evidence showing that there indeed are substantive differences between organic produce and conventional produce. Organic is often more nutritious, with a greater concentration of phytonutrients (contrary to what the popular media has been saying). Conventional produce shows up in your kitchen with far more pesticide residues, and these residues appear to be especially harmful to youngsters, babies, and fetuses (feti?). Antibiotic resistance, which is on the rise, is partially attributable to the widespread usage of antibiotics in conventional agriculture; organic agriculture forbids their usage. Many studies have also shown organic farming to be better for the environment, the local ecosystem, the renewability of the farm, and the health of its workers. Organic food is usually more expensive, but the research tends to suggest that you’re getting something extra out of it.
That’s all well and good, but should you buy organic? This is the real question that needs answering.
At first glance, these may seem inconsequential to the casual reader. Biodiversity? That sounds like some fancy newspeak conjured up by Greenpeace! Soil health? How can soil be healthy? It’s just a collection of inanimate bits of dirt and clay and sand! Bee health? What do I care about a lousy bee? All those things have ever done is sting me, vomit up fructose, and make annoying buzzing noises. Carbon sequestration? Carbon dioxide is a mythological compound! It doesn’t even exist. Worker health? I dunno about you, but it looks like they’re getting a great workout to me, and what’s healthier than that?
Although I’m exaggerating these reactions, of course, the fact is that a lot of the potential benefits of organic farming are lost on consumers because they fail to immediately impact your health in the here and the now. You might be vaguely aware that biodiversity, the health of the soil, the role of bees, the ability of soil to sequester carbon, and the health effects of conventional farming on farm workers are “important” to consider, but are they important enough to nudge you toward consuming organic?
Even if you can get folks to begrudgingly admit that organic foods tends to contain fewer pesticide residues than conventional (and that this might even impact a person’s health or the way a child develops), they’ll dig in their heels when it comes to the nutritional content. And why shouldn’t they? Organic isn’t really about getting more vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients; it’s always been about getting vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients without the conventional pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that so often accompany conventional produce. The presupposition that proponents of organic produce claim it contains more nutrients is a bit of a straw man, as that claim is rarely – if ever – made.
But what if that mythological claim actually held a kernel of truth? I mean, now that they’ve mentioned it and let that monkey out of its cage, let’s explore a bit to find out, starting with the Stanford study that sparked this whole topic.
A few weeks ago in Weekend Link Love, I mentioned the great big much-ballyhooed study that appeared to show organic produce was no more healthy than conventional produce. Many people with an axe to grind championed its findings, with some proclaiming the undeniable ringing of the final death knell of organic farming. Science Based Medicine wasted no time in weighing in on the current state of organic food, which they said “represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.” Strong words, words that seem to be – at first glance – supported by the study in question. But are they? Are you falling for marketing hype when you buy organic? Is it worth it?
Gardening is a hot topic this week on MDA. Two days ago, Mark gave you the whys – gardening can be therapeutic, it can improve health markers, it can be a great way for people to move frequently at a slow pace, and the list goes on. It’s also a great way to save money on organic produce, to maintain a constant (and self-replicating) supply of edible green things, and to get out into the sun. Let’s just say that gardening is good for you on multiple levels, and if you’ve got the space and the time, you should probably give it a shot.
You might recall that in that same post, Mark mentioned his relative lack of horticultural mastery. This is true for me, too, and a lot of you guys out there as well. You might say that this Worker Bee doesn’t fly far from the hive. Still, I didn’t let that discourage me when the queen (er, king? I’m struggling to maintain the bee metaphor here without tripping over gender issues!) bee tasked me with starting a rudimentary herb garden and then writing about it.
Shortly after writing the cold cuts post, in which I gave Applegate Farms some praise for being “one of the good ones,” I received an email from a perceptive reader who had a slightly different appraisal of the situation. Applegate Farms, it turns out, doesn’t raise any animals themselves. There’s no farm to visit. They source all their animals from outside farms. Now, there’s nothing wrong with sourcing meat from outside sources, especially when you make a concerted effort to procure good meat from well-raised animals, but I’ll admit that this does change things a bit for me. My idea of the ideal meat producer, however romantic, outdated, or unrealistic it might be, is one that handles every single aspect of the business in house: from raising the animals to feeding them feed grown on site, to tending their pastures, to slaughtering them (or, as the law requires, having them slaughtered at a USDA-inspected “harvesting site”), all the way to curing, slicing, and distributing the meat and related products. I like shaking the hand that castrated the calf, scratched the pig’s snout, and collected the egg, as the other slides me a vacuum-sealed package of short ribs at the Saturday morning farmers’ market.
Several months back, a major study comparing the nutritional value of organic food to conventional food made the rounds. Organic food, it found, was “no healthier” than ordinary food. There were no significant “differences in nutrient content,” and the study’s authors found “no evidence to support the selection of organic over conventionally produced foods on the basis of nutritional superiority.” Hmm, so there were “differences,” but they were “unlikely to be of any public health relevance.” Okay – even if I accept that the differences were unimportant, there was a major, glaring qualifier: “nutritional superiority.” Going organic, then, doesn’t suddenly change the essential composition of a plant. A grape remains a grape (small differences aside), whether you use artificial pesticides or “natural” pesticides. I buy that, and I don’t think many people who support organic are arguing that industrial organic farms produce purer, more “appley” apples than conventional farms. They’re simply wary of ingesting the artificial chemical cocktails applied to conventional crops.