Organic foods are popular among health-conscious consumers, but they can cost more than conventionally grown items. Only five million acres of farmland in the U.S. were certified organic in 2016, according to the most recent Certified Organic Survey from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That means less than 1% of U.S. farm acreage is producing certified organic foods and yet sales from these products rose 23% from 2015 to 2016, per the USDA.
Increasing demand is only one reason for the higher price of organic products, says Greg Wank, a partner at advisory firm Anchin, Block & Anchin LLP who leads its food and beverage practice group. It costs farmers more to produce products without conventional pesticides, and the harvesting and handling of organic food can be more time-intensive, two factors that further add to the cost. "That all being said, each year there is more and more supply due to the strong demand, which is slowly bringing costs lower," Wank says.
Still, there are simple and clever ways to curb costs on organic food.
Here's how to eat organic on a budget:
-- Read labels carefully.
-- Focus on priority foods.
-- Purchase in-season produce.
-- Forgo fresh for frozen produce.
-- Buy store-brand organic products.
-- Shop at budget-friendly stores.
-- Look for organic coupons.
-- Purchase sale items.
-- Buy directly from farmers.
-- Extend shelf life with the proper storage.
Read Labels Carefully
Manufacturers use a variety of marketing terms to encourage sales, but words like "natural" are no guarantee that something is free of genetic engineering or synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Instead, look for the USDA Organic label to make smart spending decisions. "We try to make it easy for our customers," says Maria Brous, director of media and community relations for Publix Super Markets Inc. The chain uses several wellness icons on its shelf tags to indicate which products are USDA Organic, made with at least 70% organic ingredients, have natural ingredients or may be a more suitable choice for those seeking less added sugar, less fat or more nutrients.
Focus on Priority Foods
Buying only organic food may not be financially possible for some households. In that case, families should prioritize purchases to minimize pesticide exposure, says Josh Elledge, founder of money-saving website SavingsAngel.com. "Some products have skins, for example, that you remove anyway," he says. Others, like mushrooms and asparagus, may be conventionally grown with methods resulting in little to no pesticide residue. Elledge recommends use the "Dirty Dozen" and "Clean Fifteen" lists, published annually from the nonprofit Environmental Working Group to prioritize which foods to buy organic.
Purchase In-Season Produce
Keep your costs down by buying organic produce only when it is in season. "Produce that is out of season will be more expensive, and it wouldn't be as environmentally friendly since it has to travel farther to get to the consumer," says Sotiria Everett, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Family, Population and Preventive Medicine's Nutrition division at Stony Brook Medicine.
Forgo Fresh for Frozen Produce
You don't have to buy fresh food to eat organic. "Another more budget-friendly strategy is to seek out frozen organic fruits and vegetables that tend to be priced favorably," Everett says. Studies, such as a 2015 report from researchers at the University of California--Davis, have found the nutritional value of fresh and frozen foods to be similar.
Buy Store Brand Organic Products
Many stores now carry their own private label organic products. For instance, Publix sells GreenWise products, while Albertsons Companies offers the O Organics brand in its supermarket chains, which includes Vons, Safeway and Shaw's. In many cases, these products may be lower-priced than comparable brand-name goods.
Shop at Budget-Friendly Stores
Shopping at the right store is another way to save money when buying organics. The budget grocery chain Aldi has become a favorite spot for shoppers to buy organic products at a discount, and Trader Joe's is also known for its affordable prices. Those who don't mind buying in bulk can find the good prices on organic foods at the warehouse club Costco, though you'll need to pay a $60 annual membership fee to shop there.
Purchase Sale Items
One of the easiest ways to save on organic food is to focus on purchasing what's on sale. "Shopping the flyer is always a good starting point," Brous says. Sales flyers may be found in stores or online and often list products featuring discounts. Publix usually has at least two organic items on sale each week, and the company also operates GreenWise Market that has its own circular featuring an assortment of organic and natural product sales. Many other grocers offer special pricing on select organic foods each week as well.
Look for Organic Coupons
Paper and digital coupons can offer additional savings on both regular and discounted organic foods. "There are more coupons for organic product lines than ever before," Elledge says. You can find coupons in newspaper inserts, grocery store circulars, websites like Coupons.com and store loyalty apps, such as the Meijer mPerks app. Organic brands may also occasionally send coupons directly to customers, so it can be beneficial to sign up for company mailing lists.
Buy Directly From Farmers
Many communities offer farmers markets or community supported agriculture programs, known as CSAs. Both give consumers the chance to buy direct from growers. "While selecting organic food is one way to lessen exposure to pesticides ... food that is grown locally and sustainably ... can be better for (customers) and the environment," Everett says. Small farm operations may not have the resources to go through the USDA Organic certification process, but they may use more natural techniques than larger commercial enterprises.
Extend Shelf Life With the Proper Storage
Once you have purchased your organic food, make it last with proper storage techniques.
"(There are) so many things you can do today to extend the life of produce," Brous says. Fruits and vegetables should be separated and stored individually. For instance, onions can be placed in paper bags in a cool pantry, while corn is best kept in its husk in the fridge until cooked. There are also special green bags available now that can slow down the ripening process of certain fruits like bananas.