How to Shop for Paleo-Friendly Produce, Meat, and Seafood

Paleo meals should be nutrient-dense, satisfying, and, most of all, delicious. Meat and vegetables are the building blocks of paleo cooking, and what you buy will make a difference in how your dishes turn out. Although shopping for paleo-friendly ingredients like pasture-raised pork or wild-caught salmon might take some extra effort, the resulting dishes will be well worth the time spent.

Produce

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The paleo diet encourages you to eat organic, non-GMO fruits and vegetables whenever possible, since these are not grown using pesticides and so will not contain any trace chemicals. If you can’t buy all organic produce, try buying organic for the items known as the “Dirty Dozen.” This list is published annually by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The food with the highest pesticide residue is at the top. On the other hand, the EWG also publishes the “Clean 15,” which lists the items with the least amount of pesticide. These are considered safer to buy conventionally grown. This list starts with the food with the lowest pesticide residue.

DIRTY DOZEN CLEAN 15
Apples
Peaches
Nectarines
Strawberries
Grapes
Celery
Spinach
Sweet Bell Peppers
Cucumbers
Cherry Tomatoes
Snap Peas (imported)
Potatoes
Avocados
Sweet Corn (not paleo)
Pineapples
Cabbage
Sweet Peas (frozen) (not paleo)
Onions
Asparagus
Mangos
Papayas
Kiwi
Eggplant
Grapefruit
Cantaloupe
Cauliflower
Sweet Potatoes

Meat

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Most beef sold in supermarkets today is grain-fed, meaning that after the animals are 6 months old, they are fed a diet of corn and other grains. These grains are cheap and fatten the animals quickly, lowering production costs for large-scale farms and increasing the marbling in the meat. But since cows’ bodies are not designed to digest corn, this type of diet makes them sick, often requiring antibiotics. Grass-fed animals, on the other hand, eat grass and hay, are not fed antibiotics or growth hormones, and are not confined. Grass-fed meat is generally leaner than grain-fed, but after some testing, we discovered that the differences are minimal. Note that because it has less fat, grass-fed beef is less forgiving when it comes to overcooking, so be sure to check the temperature of the meat at the beginning of the time range. The best way to source grass-fed beef, lamb, and bison is to seek out a high-end grocery store or a local butcher shop.

Unlike cows, pigs and chickens are naturally omnivorous and have no trouble digesting grain. But conventionally raised pigs and chickens are often confined to tiny cages in unhygienic conditions with no room to roam. So when shopping for pork, poultry, and eggs, try to purchase pasture-raised. Note that the term “pasture-raised” is not government regulated, so you’ll have to look for third-party certifications, like Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, or American Humane Certified. (“Free-range” means that animals must have access to the outdoors, but the amount, duration, and quality of access are not defined.) If you can’t find pasture-raised chickens, go for organic: Certified organic producers must follow stricter guidelines than conventional producers. Birds must be fed organic (and therefore non-GMO) feed, be raised without antibiotics, and have access to the outdoors (though how much is not regulated).
In addition, be sure to avoid pork or chicken that has been “enhanced,” meaning it has been injected with flavorings. It’s not paleo, and it compromises the flavor and texture of the meat. We also recommend that you avoid water-chilled chicken, which is chilled after slaughter in a water bath that may contain chemicals like chlorine. Instead, look for labels that say “air-chilled.” Besides not containing added chemicals, air-chilled birds don’t absorb extra water (which you would pay for at the market).

Seafood

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When purchasing fish and other seafood, your best bet is to find a reliable high-end grocery store or local seafood purveyor, and look for fish that is wild-caught and sustainable. For the most up-to-date recommendations on sustainable seafood choices, look for the Marine Stewardship Council logo at the store, or check the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch website.

When buying shrimp, there are a few things to keep in mind. Just because shrimp is raw doesn’t mean it’s fresh. Since only 10 percent of the shrimp sold in this country comes from U.S. sources, chances are the shrimp has been previously frozen. Unless you live near a coastal area, “fresh” shrimp likely means defrosted shrimp. We recommend skipping the seafood counter and going straight for the freezer section. There, you’ll find wild shrimp that have been individually quick-frozen (IQF). IQF shrimp are frozen at sea, locking in quality and freshness. Make sure to read the ingredient list carefully; “shrimp” should be the only ingredient listed on the bag or box. (In an effort to prevent darkening or water loss during thawing, some manufacturers add salt or sodium tripolyphosphate [STPP]. Not only are these additives not paleo-friendly, our tasters found an unpleasant texture and taste in salt-treated and STPP-enhanced shrimp.) Finally, look for shrimp with the shells still on; they have more flavor and better texture.

Shellfish like lobsters and crab are all wild-caught and are well suited for a paleo diet as long as they are not processed. For example, canned crab meat often contains additives that are not paleo-friendly. Look for fresh, in-season crab if you can find it. Some other shellfish, such as clams and mussels, are mostly farmed, but are still good options. When shopping for scallops, make sure that your scallops are “dry,” not “wet.” Wet scallops have been treated with a chemical solution to extend their shelf life, which compromises their quality and isn’t paleo-friendly. Dry scallops will look ivory or pinkish; wet scallops are bright white.

PROTEIN CHOOSE AVOID
Beef, Bison, Lamb Grass-fed Conventional/grain-fed
Pork Pasture-raised (via third-party certifications), organic Enhanced (read label and avoid anything with extraneous ingredients)
Chicken Pasture-raised (via third- party certifications), organic, air-chilled Enhanced (read label and avoid anything with extraneous ingredients)
Fish Wild-caught and sustainable Farm-raised, frozen
Shrimp IQF, shell-on STPP- or salt-injected
Scallops Dry (ask at counter) Wet