8 Ways to Buy Natural Organic Food on a Budget

Written by on July 12, 2017 in Economy with 0 Comments

Organic Food-compressed

By Amy Livingston | Money Crashers

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 Dealscombs 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.


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