As Kermit the Frog so famously said, it’s not that easy being green. You want to do the right thing for yourself, your family, and the planet, but often it seems like every green choice you make just pulls more greenbacks out of your wallet.
Take organic foods, for example. A study by Consumer Reports shows that, on average, they cost about 47% more than conventional versions of the same foods, which are grown using synthetic pesticides and herbicides. However, the price differences vary widely from food to food. For instance, one store’s organic zucchini costs more than four times as much as its conventional zucchini – but other foods, such as honey and maple syrup, can actually be cheaper when you buy organic.
This means that, for smart shoppers, there are plenty of opportunities to stretch your organic shopping dollars. By making careful choices about where you shop and what you buy, you can enjoy the benefits of eating organic without making too big a dent in your personal budget.
How to Shop for Organic Food
Eating organic on a budget takes planning. If you just toss organic foods into your shopping cart willy-nilly, you’re in for some sticker shock when you get to the checkout.
Instead, start by thinking carefully about exactly which foods you want to buy organic. Then, focus on getting the best possible deals on those foods with store brands, sales, coupons, and bulk buying.
1. Understand the Labels
The first hurdle for any organic shopper is figuring out exactly which products are organic. One way to spot these products is to look for a USDA Organic seal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
When you see this label on a product, you know that it meets the following standards:
- Plant Foods. Plants were grown without synthetic fertilizers, prohibited pesticides, or sewage sludge. They do not contain any genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and have not been irradiated.
- Animal Products. Animals were raised in a way that meets basic health and welfare standards. They had access to the outdoors, were not given antibiotics or growth hormones, and were fed 100% organic feed.
- Processed Foods. At least 95% of the material in the food comes from organic plant and animal products.
However, USDA Organic is not the only green claim found on foods. In fact, the Greener Choices site run by Consumer Reports identifies 150 different claims that can appear on food labels.
Some of the most common ones include:
- Cage Free. The Greener Choices site doesn’t cover this common label for eggs, but the website of The Humane Society explains that it means hens are kept in barns where they have space to walk, nest, and stretch their wings. However, they don’t necessarily have any access to the outdoors, and beak clipping and forced molting through starvation are allowed.
- Certified Humane. Animal products with this label come from farms with strict standards for animal welfare. For instance, animals kept indoors must have a comfortable space with room to move around, and they must be slaughtered as painlessly as possible.
- Certified Naturally Grown. In general, products with this label meet the same standards as USDA Organic products. The main difference is that the farms that produce them have not been certified by the USDA and are not under its supervision. This program is less demanding about record keeping than the USDA, but it has stricter standards for animal welfare.
- Free Range. This sounds like it should mean that animals are allowed to roam freely outdoors, but in fact, it’s not nearly that firm. For poultry products, this claim means only that birds are allowed access to the outdoors for as little as five minutes a day. For eggs and other meats, it has no legal meaning at all.
- Fair Trade. This label generally appears on products grown in developing countries. It means that the farmers who grew the crops and the workers who picked them earned a fair wage and had decent working conditions. The two main organizations that enforce these standards are Fair Trade USA and Fairtrade International.
- Natural. This claim, which may also appear as “all natural” or “100% natural,” implies that the product contains no artificial ingredients. However, there is no legal definition of the term, and different companies define it in different ways. The only time this term has any formal meaning is when it appears on meat and poultry products. In that case, it means that the meat is only minimally processed and doesn’t contain any artificial flavors, preservatives, or other ingredients – though it may still contain “natural” additives, such as salt water.
2. Prioritize Your Purchases
Based on the Consumer Reports study, if you make every single product in your shopping cart organic, you can expect to see a bump of nearly 50% in your food budget. However, you can get by with a much smaller increase if you buy mostly conventional foods and save your organic purchases for the particular products you care about most.
Shoppers have many different reasons for choosing organic foods, including concerns about health, the environment, and animal welfare. Which foods you choose to buy organic depends on which type of shopper you are.
- Health-Conscious Buyers. These shoppers are most worried about how the chemicals used in conventional farming could affect their (or their children’s) health. For them, the most important foods to buy organic are probably the “dirty dozen” identified by the Environmental Working Group. These 12 fruits and vegetables – apples, peaches, nectarines, strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, snap peas, and potatoes – tend to have the highest levels of pesticide residue in their conventional versions. By contrast, the “clean fifteen” fruits and veggies – avocados, sweet corn, pineapple, cabbage, frozen peas, onions, asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, grapefruit, cantaloupe, cauliflower, and sweet potatoes – have lower pesticide levels and are less important to buy organic.
- Eco-Friendly Shoppers. These buyers care most about the impact pesticides and herbicides have on the environment and on the health of farm workers. For them, it’s most important to focus on foods that do the most harm to the environment when they’re grown conventionally. Experts interviewed by the Sierra Club name conventional coffee and beef as examples of particularly destructive foods, so eco-conscious shoppers could set aside their shopping dollars for organic, Fair Trade coffee and grass-fed beef.
- Animal Welfare Supporters. Some people buy organic mostly because they disapprove of the way animals are treated on factory farms. These shoppers look for meat, eggs, and dairy products that are organic or Certified Humane. Unfortunately, these are some of the foods Consumer Reports says are most expensive to buy organic. One way to trim the cost is to cut down on the amount of animal products you eat overall, spending the same number of dollars on a smaller volume of organic meat or milk.
- Bargain Hunters. These consumers want to support organic farmers, but they also want to get the best value for their money. For them, the best choices are the foods that Consumer Reports says are cheapest to buy organic. Examples include cream cheese, olive oil, and baby carrots.
3. Shop Store Brands
As a rule, store brands are cheaper than brand-name foods. This is particularly true for organic foods. In fact, in some cases, buying an organic store brand can be cheaper than buying a conventional, name-brand equivalent.
Stores that have their own house brands of organic products include the following:
- ALDI. The budget chain’s Simply Nature line, introduced in 2014, includes fresh and frozen foods, pantry goods, dairy products, and snack foods. Most of these products are certified organic, but some are only “natural” – which means, in this case, less processed than most conventional foods. However, all of them are guaranteed to be free of 125 artificial or unhealthy ingredients, such as artificial sweeteners and trans fats.
- Stop & Shop and Giant. The Nature’s Promise line is available at Stop & Shop supermarkets in the Northeast and Giant supermarkets in the mid-Atlantic area. It includes some organic products, some “natural” ones, and some that are only free from specific chemicals, such as artificial fragrances in cleaning products or growth hormones in milk.
- Walmart. Through a partnership with the natural-foods chain Wild Oats, Walmart offers more than 100 products from the Wild Oats Marketplace line. Its offerings range from canned vegetables, to cookies, to spice blends. Nearly all of them are organic, and all are free of 125 unwelcome ingredients, including high-fructose corn syrup and monosodium glutamate (MSG).
- Target. The Simply Balanced line at Target features a variety of natural products including snack foods, seafood, and dairy products. Many of these products are organic, and all are free of a list of specific ingredients often thought to be harmful, including trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Simply Balanced started out as a subcategory of the store’s Archer Farms house brand and was relaunched as a separate brand in 2013.
4. Look for Sales and Coupons
Two common strategies for bargain hunters are to shop sales and use coupons. The best deals of all come from combining these two tricks, taking a sale-priced item and “stacking” a coupon on top to make the price still lower (often referred to as extreme couponing). Sunday newspaper inserts contain very few coupons for organic products, but you can occasionally find a high-value coupon for an organic name brand.
In addition, there are a few savings sites online that focus on natural or organic products. For instance, Organic Deals combs through stores’ sale fliers to find organic products that are selling at a good price, and it offers links to online coupons you can stack with those sales. You can find similar sale-and-coupon match-ups at All Natural Savings, along with a searchable database of coupons for organic products.
5. Try the Bulk Bins
Many natural foods stores, such as Whole Foods, sell products such as grains, nuts, and spices in bulk bins. You bring your own containers, or use bags provided by the store, and fill them up with as much as you want of a given ingredient. Because you aren’t paying extra for packaging, goods sold in bulk bins often cost less per pound than the same products sold in boxes or bags.
One of the best deals in the bulk section is spices, which often sell for a fraction of what they cost in jars. I recently compared the prices of several organic spices sold in bulk at the Whole Earth Center, a natural foods store in my area, with the cost of store-brand spices at my local supermarket.
Here’s how they stack up:
- Cinnamon. Bulk price: $10.59 per pound. Supermarket price: $5.19 for a 4.12-ounce jar, or $20.15 per pound. Bulk savings: 47%
- Oregano. Bulk price: $23.22 per pound. Supermarket price: $3.79 for a 1.37-ounce jar, or $44.26 per pound. Bulk savings: 48%
- Turmeric. Bulk price: $17.71 per pound. Supermarket price: $2.69 for a 0.95-ounce jar, or $45.31 per pound. Bulk savings: 61%
- Whole cloves. Bulk price: $52.92 per pound. Supermarket price: $7.89 for a 0.62-ounce jar, or $190.71 per pound. Bulk savings: 72%
- Cumin seed. Bulk price: $20.52 per pound. Supermarket price: $4.39 for a 0.75-ounce jar, or $93.65 per pound. Bulk savings: 78%
- Rosemary. Bulk price: $17.28 per pound. Supermarket price: $5.19 for a 0.35-ounce jar, or $237.26 per pound. Bulk savings: an astonishing 93%
These prices are even more remarkable when you consider that the bulk spices are organic and the store-brand spices aren’t. So by using the bulk bins, I can actually buy organic spices for less than I’d pay for the conventional versions.
Another bonus of shopping from the bulk bins is that some stores offer you a discount for bringing your own containers. For instance, at the Whole Earth Center I can save $0.10 for every container I bring from home.
One caveat about bulk shopping: Although bulk goods are often a bargain, they’re not always cheaper than the packaged versions of the same products. So when you shop, check the prices on the shelf first before you head to the bulk section.
Where to Shop
When it comes to saving money on organic food, where you shop is just as important as how you shop. Stores that specialize in organic and natural products often offer the best deals.
Based on a survey of more than 60,000 subscribers, Consumer Reports says that the four stores with the best overall prices on organic foods are:
- Trader Joe’s. This California-based grocery chain has about 400 stores scattered across 40 states and the District of Columbia. According to the store’s website, it specializes in “innovative, great-tasting, hard-to-find foods” – including many organic foods – at bargain prices. Most of the products sold in the store are Trader Joe’s own house brand, which appears under diverse names such as “Trader Jose’s” or “Trader Ming’s” for different types of ethnic foods. All Trader Joe’s brand products are guaranteed to be free of GMOs and various artificial ingredients. However, only some of them are organic, so shoppers should check packages to make sure they carry the USDA Organic label.
- Costco. This chain operates on the warehouse club model: shoppers pay a membership fee to join, and in return, they get access to a wide assortment of bargain-priced products. Some of the best values in the store are from Costco’s house brand, Kirkland Signature. Consumer Reports says that many Kirkland Signature products, including the store’s organic chicken stock, are just as good as top name brands, but are available at a fraction of the cost. The editors also cite Kirkland Signature organic milk and eggs as particular bargains.
- Wegmans. This small, regional chain has fewer than 100 stores, more than half of them in New York State. Its motto is “Eat Well, Live Well,” so the store focuses on offering fresh, high-quality foods, including organic foods. Its Wegmans Organic line includes a wide range of produce, meat, dairy, and bulk foods such as grains, nuts, and coffee. The store even runs its own organic farm to provide local, organic produce in its New York stores.
- Sprouts Farmers Markets. This chain has 200-plus stores, mostly in the Southwest. Its focus, according to its website, is “offering fresh, natural, and organic foods at great prices.” Consumer reviews on the Web praise the store’s deals on produce, meats, and bulk-bin items such as nuts and spices.
However, stores aren’t your only option for finding organic bargains. You can also save money by shopping online, buying directly from growers, or even growing your own organic foods at home.
6. Find Deals Online
Online stores can offer better deals than their brick-and-mortar counterparts because their business expenses can be lower. Many don’t have to pay rent on a storefront, for instance, and they can manage with fewer employees. So it should come as no surprise that organic sellers can often offer better deals on organic food than you’ll find at your neighborhood supermarket.
For example, coffee is very expensive to buy organic at the store. If you’re looking for a bean that’s both organic and Fair Trade certified, many stores will charge you around $12 a pound for it. However, if you buy five pounds at a time from Dean’s Beans, an online purveyor of organic and Fair Trade coffees, your cost can drop to less than $10 per pound.
One downside of buying this way is that shipping costs eat into your savings. That’s why it’s usually a better deal to buy in bulk – five pounds at a time instead of one. The price per pound is a little lower this way, but the main advantage is that you only have to pay for shipping once instead of five times.
Some online sellers also offer special deals to compete with major retailers. For example, Abe’s Market, an online grocery store that deals in natural and organic products, has a program called “Try for $2,” which sells small packages of various products for just $2 each – with free shipping. You can order up to three products per day with this program. The site also offers free shipping on any order over $49.
7. Buy From Farmers
When you’re shopping for organic produce, one way to save is by skipping the middleman and buying directly from the farmers who grow it. Depending on where you live and what’s grown in your area, the savings can be significant.
Some options include:
- Farmers’ Markets. Prices for organic food at farmers markets vary by region. A 2010 study by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont found that Vermont farmers markets offered better prices than supermarkets on 13 out of 14 items of organic produce. However, a similar study in 2014 by the Cooperative Extension at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources found that farmers markets had better prices on only 4 out of 10 organic items.
- Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA). With a CSA, instead of shopping for fruit and vegetables by the pound, you pay a fixed price up front for a share of a farmer’s crop. You often pay less per pound this way, but you can’t choose the particular foods you want. Before investing in a CSA, it’s a good idea to find out what products you should expect to get each season to make sure you can use them all. If a full CSA share provides too much food for your family, you can try splitting a share with a friend or neighbor.
- Pick Your Own. Farmers all across the country – including some organic farmers – give visitors the chance to pick their own fruit, vegetables, and flowers for a fixed price per pound that’s often quite a bit lower than the store price. You can find pick-your-own farms in your area at PickYourOwn.org. The site indicates which farms are organic.
8. Grow Your Own
A final option for eating organic on a budget is to grow your own organic produce at home. In a way, this is better than buying Certified Organic, because even organic growers can use some types of pesticides and don’t need to disclose the fact. When you grow your own vegetables, you know exactly what has gone into them.
Organic gardening doesn’t necessarily require a lot of space. Rosalind Creasy, author of the book “Edible Landscaping,” reported in Mother Earth News that in its first year, her 100-square-foot organic garden produced nearly $700 worth of vegetables.
Even if you have no yard at all, you can still save some money by growing tomato plants on a balcony or keep a couple of pots of herbs on a sunny windowsill. Fresh herbs, especially organic ones, are some of the most expensive ingredients to buy at the supermarket. A small bunch of organic oregano or thyme can cost $3, but for that same $3, you can buy a packet of seeds and grow an indoor plant that will keep you in fresh herbs for years. As a bonus, when you grow your own herbs, you can harvest just one sprig if that’s all you need for a recipe – you don’t have to buy a whole bunch at the supermarket and try to figure out how to use it all up before it goes bad.
If you’re new to gardening, start small. You shouldn’t expect to grow enough vegetables to feed yourself all summer in your first year as a gardener. Try digging just a small patch or growing a couple of container plants, and gradually expand your garden as you gain confidence. There are plenty of resources at the library and on the Web to help new gardeners learn the ropes.
Of course, not every shopper can take advantage of all these different tips. For instance, city dwellers are less likely to have space for gardening or access to CSAs and pick-your-own farms. On the other hand, they’re more likely to have a wide selection of grocery stores to choose from, giving them more opportunities to take advantage of store brands, coupons, and sales. No matter where you live, you can certainly find some combination of tips that can help you get more for every dollar you spend on organic food.
What are your favorite products to buy organic? What strategies do you use to cut the cost?