When it comes to blueberries, my daughter can polish off a pint in one sitting. She’s always been a huge berry-lover, which is something I can’t complain about. They’re filled with vitamins and antioxidants and are a healthy way to satisfy her sizeable sweet tooth.
What I agonize over, however, is the price. A pint of conventional (aka with a side of pesticides) blueberries is $3.99 at my local grocery store. The organic variety cost $5.99 a pint – 50 percent more. (New York City prices, I realize, are ridiculous. As a comparison, a supermarket in Milwaukee sells conventional blueberries for $2.50 a pint and organic for $3.99. Cheaper, yes, but still a 60 percent cost difference.)
It’s only a couple of bucks, but if I load my cart with organic, natural and non-genetically modified foods instead of conventional ones, eventually those few dollars add up. So, how can I spend my dollars wisely and find the best deals on the foods I prefer to feed my family? It’s actually easier than I realized.
Buy in Bulk
Wholesale clubs such as BJ’s, Sam’s Club and Costco have seized upon the demand for organic goods and offer many fruits, vegetables and other grocery items in bulk quantities. Organic eggs and milk also move in large quantities at these stores and are therefore often cheaper.
“I can usually get a big bag of organic apples at Costco for $1 a pound,” says Fanny Seto, author of “Eating Organic on a Budget” and editor in chief of Living Richly on a Budget. “Shop for what’s in season and what’s on sale and sometimes it’s even cheaper than the conventional product.”
Seto and her family try to eat all the produce they buy before it goes bad. But if not, freeze the extra. Or, if you’re especially industrious in the kitchen, Seto recommends canning foods when they’re in season so you can enjoy them later.
Seafood is the wild west of the natural foods movement. Not only is most of it farmed (meaning it’s not free in the ocean, eating its usual diet and thus naturally creating its own heart-healthy fats and proteins) it is often mislabeled. Oceana, the ocean conservation organization, published a report in February, 2013, showing that out of 1,200 seafood samples analyzed from 21 states, one-third were mislabeled entirely. Snapper was by far the most mislabeled fish, followed by tuna. In some cases, farmed fish was labeled wild. One in five cases of mislabeling fraud was found in grocery stores. (To be fair, this was the lowest rate of mislabeling. Sushi restaurants had the worst record.)
Beyond the fraud, mislabeling presents health risks as well. In the study, 84 percent of tuna samples were actually a fish called escolar, a fish that has a naturally occurring toxin called gempylotoxin. Because of this, it is banned in Italy and Japan and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises against (although has not banned) its sale.
So, how can you protect yourself? Wild fish is still better than farmed, despite the risk of mislabeling. Wild salmon was one of the most rarely mislabeled fish, according to the Oceana study. The online grocer Fresh Direct tries to prevent mislabeling by sourcing their fish directly from the fishermen who harvest it. Ask your fishmonger, whether at the grocery store or local fish store, where they get their fish and how they know it is what they say it is. If you’re lucky enough to live near where fish is still locally caught, odds are you’re getting properly labeled, and fresh, fish. And look to the freezer case, recommends Jayson Calton, Ph.D., who co-authored “Rich Food Poor Food” with his wife Mira, a licensed certified nutritionist—frozen fish, marked wild, is often sold at a lower price than fresh fish at the counter.
Head to the Farm
The price tag on organic meat, chicken and eggs can be heart-stopping. Conventional lean ground beef at my grocer runs about $5.50 a pound. The organic variety is $8.99. But that’s nothing compared to chicken—$3.99 for conventional vs. $11.99 for organic boneless, skinless chicken breasts. What’s a buyer to do?
“Find a local farm that offers a cow-share or pig-share,” says Jayson Calton. “You can get 1/16 of a cow, or up to 1/2 a cow. Then you get yourself a freezer full of meat. We pay $4.44 a pound for beef no matter what cut it is, whether it’s filet mignon or not.”
By visiting the farm, Jayson says, you can see for yourself that the animals are grass fed and allowed out to pasture instead of being penned. You can talk personally with the farmer and be sure any feed is organic. To find a pasture-based farm in your area that sells meats direct to the consumer, visit EatWild.
Straight from the farm, or from the farmer’s market, is also a great place to get economical organic eggs, fruits and vegetables. “Go to farmer's market and see what's cheap and affordable,” says Seto. “It will be fresher, and will stay fresher longer, than something that’s imported from Chile.”
Many food items boast claims such as “Made with Organic Ingredients” or “All Natural.” But to really know what you’re paying for, you have to read the nutrient facts, says Mira Calton. “The ingredient list is the last bastion of hope,” says Mira Calton.
If the box says “all natural” but the ingredient list contains offenders such as corn syrup, soy lecithin or isoflavones, odds are it contains genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which have been engineered to resist pesticides and to kill the pests who try to destroy the plant as it is growing. Corn and soy are among the most abundant GM foods, says Mira Calton. “People shouldn’t be wasting their money on products that still have GMOs,” she says.
To avoid GM foods, look for the USDA Organic or “Non-GMO Project” verified labels. Or check out the Center for Food Safety’s grocery store app, that allows you to quickly search an item to see if it is GM-free. This way you’ll know before you buy whether a product is worth its premium price tag.
Stick with Safe Non-Organics
Not every food you buy needs to be organic, because not every food has the same pesticide load. The Environmental Working Group has identified the “Clean 15” fruits and vegetables that have the lowest pesticide risk. So feel no guilt when you buy the conventional, and cheaper, asparagus, avocados, cabbage, cantaloupe, sweet corn, eggplant, grapefruit, kiwi, mangos, mushrooms, onions, papayas, pineapples, frozen sweet peas and sweet potatoes.
If you want to avoid GM foods as well as pesticides, the Caltons recommend you steer clear of papaya and corn. Foods worth the organic investment, due to the pesticide usage, are the “Dirty Dozen” and include apples, celery, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, grapes, hot peppers, imported nectarines, peaches, potatoes, spinach, strawberries, sweet bell peppers, kale/collard greens and summer squash.