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Shopping on a Budget for Organic Food


Many Americans who want to make the switch to organic food fear they will break the bank if they enter a whole foods store.

In truth, the prices of many organic food items are comparable to-or even cheaper than-their nonorganic cousins, and you gain peace of mind, knowing that your food does not contain pesticides, chemicals, toxins or preservatives. You're also supporting the efforts of local organic farmers, who treat the land with respect, practice sustainability and protect our environment.'s shoppers and taste testers visited two stores, 2 miles apart from each other, in the Southern California region last month: Whole Foods Market, the world's leading natural and organic foods supermarket, and a leading chain grocery store that advertises low prices and top selection. We chose three staples that you are likely to have in your kitchen right now. How did they fare?

Black Beans

We use canned organic black beans in salads, stews, soups and side dishes, as they're an excellent source of fiber, protein, folate, magnesium, vitamin B1 and iron.

At Whole Foods Market, we bought two different brands, both of which are available in 15-oz. cans: Westbrae Organic Black Beans (99 cents-6.6 cents per ounce) and Eden Organic Black Beans ($1.69-11.3 cents per ounce). At our local supermarket, 15-oz. cans of nonorganic black beans were comparably priced: Bush's Black Beans (99 cents-6.6 cents per ounce) and S&W Black Beans ($1.09-7.3 cents per ounce). All of these brands were similar in taste, so buying organic is clearly the right choice.

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From the Organic Authority Files

Tortilla Chips

Organic tortilla chips are usually baked instead of fried, so they're low in fat, with no to minimal cholesterol. Whole Foods' own brand, 365 Organic, tops the taste test and is competitively priced. We love the Organic Blue Corn Chips. A 10-oz. bag sold for $1.99 (19.9 cents per ounce) and beat the prices of all other brands. Our local supermarket happened to carry two brands of organic blue corn chips: Garden of Eatin' ($2.99 for 7.5 oz.-39.9 cents per ounce) and Guiltless Gourmet ($2.99 for 7 oz.-42.7 cents per ounce.).

The lesson here? Mainstream supermarkets charge a premium for organic foods, while markets that specialize in whole foods offer better bargains. As a base of comparison: Nonorganic yellow-corn tortilla chips were high in sodium and too salty for our taste buds. Prices ranged from $2.29 for the store's own high-sodium brand (14 oz.-16.4 cents per ounce) to $3.49 for a 12.5-oz bag of incredibly salty Doritos (27.9 cents per ounce).

Canned Soups

While we enjoy making our own soups from scratch, keeping a few cans of soup in the cupboard proves to be convenient, especially if you have culinary-challenged family members. At Whole Foods, a 15-oz. can of organic Walnut Acres Mushroom Barley Soup sold for $1.99, while Health Valley Organic Black Bean Soup (15 oz.) also sold for $1.99 (both equate to 13.3 cents per ounce). By contrast, the nonorganic supermarket brands were 15.3% more expensive-and heavy on the sodium: Campbells' Chunky Soups and Progresso soups were both priced at $2.99 for a 19-oz. can (15.7 cents per ounce). Once again, the organic variety was more economical-and much healthier.

Shopping Suggestions

Organic meat, poultry, and fresh fruits and vegetables usually cost more than their nonorganic counterparts, but you can save money by shopping at a farmer's market or alternative vendor.

"You don't have to pay exorbitant prices for quality organic meats, ingredients and produce," says Chef Tina Luu of The Art Institute of California-San Diego, who has been a longstanding member of the Boston-based Chefs Collaborative, a national network of more than 1,000 members of the food community who create sustainable cuisine by promoting local and seasonal ingredients in cooking. "Most cities will have several organic food outlet options, including community co-ops or farmer's markets." You can search online for an organic farmer's market, co-op or organic grocery in your area by visiting Local Harvest.

Luu also recommends picking up circulars and coupons at whole foods stores, which regularly run sales on featured organic items. Some organics, she acknowledges, will "always cost a little more, but it is a value system that one has to buy into to receive the full benefits associated with organic cooking." And as our testers discovered, organic foods-particularly nonperishable staples-actually cost less or the same, in many instances, as nonorganic items.

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