scorecard2 foods Michael Pollan always buys organic to reduce his exposure to harmful chemicals
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2 foods Michael Pollan always buys organic to reduce his exposure to harmful chemicals

Hilary Brueck   

2 foods Michael Pollan always buys organic to reduce his exposure to harmful chemicals
LifeScience3 min read
Michael Pollan is out with a new documentary, "Food, Inc. 2."    Jens Kalaene/picture alliance via Getty Images; Chelsea Jia Feng/BI
  • Michael Pollan has been investigating how US farmers grow plants and raise livestock for 17 years.
  • As a result of what he's seen, he has changed his diet in a few key ways.

When Michael Pollan is shopping for his family, he tries to buy organic food.

But he knows that's not always realistic — and that the word "organic" is not a synonym for healthy or pure. It is mired in agro-politics.

Though organically grown foods tend to be slightly more nutritious and better for the health of the planet, they aren't always. Organic farming techniques generally also lead to lower yields, meaning farms produce less food, and it's more expensive to buy.

Still, there are a couple of items Pollan will avoid if organic options aren't available. That's largely because the non-organic versions are often so laden with toxic chemicals, he told Business Insider, ahead of the release of his new documentary, "Food, Inc. 2," which came out April 12.

"I just think it's a good idea to keep synthetic pesticides out of your diet to the extent you can," Pollan said. "There are practices in American agriculture that if people really knew about them, they would be outraged."


strawberry picking
Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images

After roughly 17 years of studying the food industry, Pollan can't stomach non-organic strawberries anymore. They "are usually grown with some pretty nasty chemicals, soil fumigants and things like that," he said.

Strawberries, with their delicate, permeable, soft skins have been a staple on the Environmental Working Group's controversial "Dirty Dozen" list for years because the non-organic versions tend to have some of the highest surface pesticide levels of any fresh fruit or vegetable on the market.

As a result, demand for more organic strawberries has surged in recent years; organic strawberry acreage in California tripled between 2008 and 2019. (But nutrition experts stress there are still plenty of health benefits to eating regular strawberries, and giving a conventional berry a quick rinse in the sink can help reduce your pesticide exposure).

Organic strawberries aren't grown that differently from conventionals — except when it comes to the fertilizers and weed killers farmers use. Typically, organic strawberries in the US are cultivated without soil fumigants or herbicides.

"In general, organic soils, they don't get their fertility from chemicals, they get their fertility from compost and manure and things like that," Pollan said. "Not in every case, but in many cases, they have more nutrients."


wheat in field
Alain Pitton/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pollan said he also buys organic flour and bread.

Conventional wheat hasn't gotten the same bad reputation that strawberries have. It's not listed on the Dirty Dozen list, in part because it's not really considered fresh produce, and we don't tend to eat it raw.

But studies suggest that conventional grains tend to harbor higher levels of cadmium, a toxic metal found in soil, than organic versions. Pollan worries, in particular, about the level of glyphosate that's in conventional wheat at harvest.

"Wheat farmers have taken to spraying glyphosate on their crops to kill it — it's a weed killer and plant killer," he said. "We're carrying body levels of glyphosate that are much higher than they used to be."

Scientists are still arguing about whether this trend is worrisome, and some big grainmakers in the US are already phasing out their use of pre-harvest glyphosate, but Pollan is not waiting around.

"They're taking this toxic pesticide, which has been linked to lymphoma and is banned in many countries, and they're spraying it on our food right before harvest, very close to the time we're going to eat it, he said. "It's a very good argument for buying organic wheat and organic bread."