The Produce Hierarchy

The Produce Hierarchy

In the Paleo/Primal world and hell, the nutrition world in general many sources tend to come off as preachy. You should do this, you have to do this, you are going to die and grow extra digits if your meat doesn’t come from virgin unicorns raised only on the finest grasses by Buddist monks who live next door to you which is then processed using hypnotherapy in the presence of Dr. Temple Grandin herself.

Relax. Breathe. It ain’t that complicated and it ain’t that serious. Americans’, in my opinion, have a bi-polar view regarding food and their diet. There is an “all-in” mentality that seems to pervade popular culture. If something is good, a shit ton of that something must be better and a heaping shit-ton must be best. This leads you and I to go overboard in regards to dietary advice when in reality and practically it is the slow, small steps towards better eating habits that make the difference in the long run.

Let’s look at vegetables and the Country Boy Paleo philosophy of the produce hierarchy ranging from “better than no vegetables at all” to an “ideal, perfect, best possible case scenario”. Our scale takes into account not only the nutritional qualities but also the environmental and economic impacts of food.

  1. Processed and preserved vegetables that arrive cooked and/or boxed.
    • Examples would be vegetables that come as part of a microwave meal, vegetables with high added sugar, salt and/or preservatives; i.e. Packaged tomato sauces, some packaged French Fries, ketchup, etc
  2. Commercially Canned or Frozen Vegetables with minimal processing or additives.
    • Examples would include plain canned vegetables like tomato’s or frozen spinach with no additions, in some cases these have similar nutrient profiles to fresh being as they are flash frozen immediately after harvesting.
  3. Fresh Commercial Produce
    • This would be any produce you could grab on any day of the week from your local brand name grocery store. Although there are variations by species as to things like pesticide use and absorption and use of Genetically Modified Organisms, we will consider all commercially grown food to roughly inhabit the same category. (The GMO conversation is whole other issue, check the bottom of this article for a very brief post-script.)
  4. Organically Grown Commercial Produce
    • This would constitute the “Organic” section in your local grocer. Although “Organic” is a regulated term that actually requires a grower to meet certain standards, it could still be handled in a way negates the environmental good of not using pesticides among a host of other issues.
  5. Locally Grown Produce Direct to Consumer
    • Locally grown produce is a pretty all-encompassing group. You could live next door to 20,000 acres of GMO Round-Up Ready Corn, in which case Locally Grown would be the same category as Commercial. However, most of those large farms don’t sell directly to the consumer. Here we are talking about food that you buy directly from the farmer at the Farm or Farmers Market, however, these can be a mix of Agro-Industrial farming and traditional methods, and it is up to the consumer to decide how they feel about each particular farms’ methods. The advantage here is if you develop a relationship with your producer you may be able to nudge them towards a more sustainable method of production.
  6. Locally Grown Organic or Sustainable Produce
    • This takes the Locally Grown one step further towards to true “Organic” (whether they have the certification or not, which most small farms choose not to do, due to overwhelming regulations and USDA mandated costs) and can include all sorts of sustainable steps from food waste recycling and composting, rainwater collection, advanced crop rotations, multi-species symbiosis, etc. Ideally stepping onto this type of farm might feel like a step back in time towards multi-crop agriculture and blend of heritage techniques combined with modern sustainable methods.
  7. Food you grow organically steps from your kitchen in a responsible manner and harvested as needed.

Now I realize this hierarchy is neither perfect nor all encompassing, it is only a reference point to be used when making purchasing decisions and as a template to help you get started. Different seasons and different regions of the world will all impact the availability, accessibility and cost of all of the different options. None of the above, except possibly Number 1 are particularly negative options especially if you are coming directly from a Standard American Diet. Just concentrate on upgrading your food choices a level or two and educate yourself as to which foods offer the most benefit from upgrading. For instance, avocados are not local in most of the US, most are grown commercially but due to their characteristics do not absorb pesticides and they are a nutritional powerhouse.  In the case of avocados paying a dollar each for commercially grown and being able to consume 4 or 5 for the cost of one “organic” avocado is a positive trade off.

So there is your starting point for fruits and vegetables. Don’t over stress it, any vegetable you choose to feed your family is going to be better than anything that comes pre-packaged and/or cooked. Here’s the takeaway.

  • Commercial Beats Boxed
  • Organic Beats Commercial
  • Local Beats Organic
  • Organic Local beats everything but Your Own Backyard

Until next time,

Keep it real and keep it rural,


As promised a quick post script regarding GMO’s. The science is still very young on the genetically modified organism front and no definitive long-term studies have been done. We take a skeptical approach to GMO’s opting simply for the fact that no one knows what the long-term effects will be, so our view is to avoid any and all GMO products.

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