Choosing how to spend your grocery dollars is tough, especially when it comes to understanding aisle after aisle of ever-increasing labels and options. Even with the best prep work and shopping list, you could spend hours in the store debating animal rights, environmental impact, and taste options. “Free range,” “grass-fed," “organic,” and “all-natural" are among the many terms that get slapped on packages—with a price increase, of course.
As a dietician, I want to help you be a more informed consumer when it comes to produce, dry goods, oils, meats, dairy, and eggs. Do you really need to buy organic? Is it worth it to buy grass-fed? I break it down for you here—then you can decide for yourself whether to splurge, save, or compromise on your weekly food budget.
Expert recommendation: compromise
There's no evidence that nutrient differences exist between organic and conventional produce. But there’s no question that the organic versions cost more. Other than price, the difference comes down to pesticides. Both conventional and organic must contain pesticide levels lower than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems unsafe (although “safe levels” are not generally agreed upon). Organic produce is less likely to contain these residues. The Environmental Working Group puts out annual reports on the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15”. The Dirty Dozen are those conventional fruits and vegetables that tested higher in levels of pesticides or that were found to have residue of pesticides deemed particularly harmful, whereas the fruits and vegetables on the Clean 15 list are less likely to contain pesticides even in their conventional forms.
Splurge on the organic versions of the Dirty Dozen, including apples, strawberries, spinach, and potatoes. Save when it comes to the Clean 15, such as avocados, sweet potatoes, and pineapple. And if the fresh, organic price tag is too hefty, try the frozen versions! They have the same high nutrient density as their fresh counterparts. When it comes to buying local or not, consider supporting local farmers. You'll leave behind a smaller carbon footprint. Even more, you'll get the best-tasting seasonal ingredients in your region.
Expert recommendation: save
You may have heard the recommendation to stay out of the inner grocery aisles. This practice can save you big bucks. It can also spare you from purchasing low-nutrient foods like packaged sweets and high-fat, high-sodium snacks. But this logic would also mean you miss some nutrient-dense pantry items. Whole grain cereals and breads, plus dried and canned beans, pack a nutritious punch for a low cost. You can also buy them in bulk so you’re always prepared to whip up a quick, healthy meal.
Expert recommendation: compromise
Options for plant-based oils are ever-expanding. Selecting the right oil means understanding the practicality of its use. For example, many oils (including olive oil) are not stable at higher temperatures. This makes them a poor choice for pan-frying or roasting vegetables. Use them to dress salad instead. Save by buying cooking oils like safflower or canola in bulk—both stand up to high heat. Then splurge for taste on oils you’ll serve with salad or drizzle over appetizers (check out a taste test here!).
Expert recommendation: splurge on grass-fed
The average American meat-eater may spend up to $300 per year more if opting for “grass-fed” or “free-range.” If you’re feeding a whole family, the cost only rises. Studies are mixed on whether conventional or organic meat samples are more frequently contaminated. The only point of agreement is that the risk of contamination overall is low. From a nutritional standpoint, free-range and conventional chicken is likely quite similar.
On the other hand, the nutritional profile of grass-fed beef is better than its grain-fed counterpart. Grass-fed meat is leaner, meaning it has less saturated fat and fewer calories. Grass-fed meat is estimated to be 92 calories lower per 6 oz serving than conventional meat. The reason for this leaner beef is that grass-fed beef is not fed on a feedlot. Cows used for conventional beef are often allowed some grazing time early in life. Then they're taken to a feedlot and fed grain to increase their weight quickly just before slaughter. That rapid increase in fat mass leaves the conventional beef more marbled. It also means that your conventional beef cows sit on a feedlot for the end of their life. Besides nutritional differences, feedlot versus pasture-raising has quite a few environmental and humane animal treatment implications.
Part of this “splurge” recommendation stems from a more personal experience. If you’ve ever driven up I-5 through central California, you’ve had the opportunity to see (and smell) the feedlot versus pasture difference firsthand. On one side of the freeway you’ll see gorgeous green pastures, peppered with grazing cows. However, you’ll soon smell and see the feedlots on the opposite side of the road. Cows spill over cows eating from grain troughs in piles of dirt. Their manure smell permeates your vehicle. While the nutritional and environmental impact components for humanely treated, grass-fed, free-range meat are strong, this side-by-side freeway comparison alone could be enough for anyone to shell out the extra bucks.
Expert recommendation: compromise
There are a lot of dairy choices and dairy alternatives in stores these days. When selecting grass-fed dairy versus conventional, consider the same humane treatment and environmental factors as with meats, which helps explain the higher price for organic. In addition to these implications, you may find yourself perusing the cheese aisle, unsure of whether the “good” cheese is worth the hefty price tag. This boils down to taste. Many stores now carry small amounts of higher end imported cheeses (like a “$4 and under” bin), so you can sample the good stuff without spending all your meal money for the week.
To help budget, try combining pricier, imported cheeses with lower cost counterparts. If a recipe calls for Parmesan, use half Parmesan Reggiano (a more expensive variety) and half pecorino cheese (a lower cost alternative). Keep in mind that some tasty cheeses are actually domestic in origin (like cheddar). If you’re debating between conventional versus grass-fed, try making a small change. Buy grass fed milk but stick with conventional yogurt, for example. The nutritional profile of conventional and organic dairy is about the same. You get all the protein and calcium benefits whether you go organic, conventional, imported, or domestic.
Expert recommendation: splurge on free-range or organic
When it comes to eggs, options include free-range, organic, and caged. Of course the term “caged” is not included on the packaging. Instead, those that are "free-range" or "organic" will state just that. The difference between these terms is the amount of outdoor access the hens receive. Both “free-range” and “organic” mean that hens spend some time outdoors. But the legal use of these terms does not specify the amount of time outdoors nor indicate a pasture diet. Conventional hens are kept in cages. This difference is important as caged hens display destructive, repetitive behaviors. Caged animals also produce an amount of manure that contributes to air, water, and soil pollutants. Pasture-rotation allows for that manure to be spread without the same toxicity. As to the nutritional content, findings are mixed on whether free-range eggs are nutritionally superior to conventional. Even without nutritional benefits from free-range or organic varieties, the environmental and animal rights benefits of allowing a more natural life process makes this cost a worthy one.