Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Price Check: The Aldi Organic Face-Off

Aldi sells organics now, doo-dah, doo-dah...

Early this year, Aldi rolled out its Simply Nature brand, which includes both natural and organic products. The term "natural," according to the FDA, has no legal meaning, but "organic" foods have to meet to meet specific standards laid out by the USDA, and eco-conscious consumers like me are often willing to pay a premium for them. In my case, as I've noted before, that premium is set somewhat arbitrarily at 60 percent—though we'll go higher than that for certain foods that are particularly destructive to grow conventionally. In general, that means we focus our organic purchases on fresh produce, which usually falls within the "rule of 1.6," and pass over the organic pasta, milk, and breakfast cereal, which typically cost two to three times as much as their conventional counterparts. Or at least, they used to.

Yesterday, however, on a trip to Aldi to pick up a few staples, I happened to notice that their Simply Nature Organic Toasted Oats (an equivalent to Cheerios, available in both regular and Honey Toasted versions) were priced at $1.99 for a 9-ounce box, or $3.54 a pound. Sitting right next to them on the shelf was a much larger box of Honey Nut Cheerios, one of the rare products Aldi carries that isn't its own house brand, priced at $3.67 a pound. On sale. The sale price of the conventional breakfast cereal was more than the regular price of the store-brand organic cereal.

Well, needless to say, that set my little mental cogs a-turning. I wondered: if the cereal is cheaper, how do the prices of other Simply Nature products compare to conventional versions of the same products? Could it be that buying organic at Aldi actually costs less than buying conventional name brands?

This wasn't a question I could answer right there in the store, since Aldi carries so few non-self-branded products. So instead, I went to the webpage for the Simply Nature line and jotted down the prices of about a dozen products (including only those labeled as organic rather than merely "natural"). Then I went to the local Stop & Shop and jotted down the lowest price I could find for a similar name-brand product that wasn't organic. For the sake of comparison, I wrote down the prices of the Stop & Shop store brand as well, if there was one.

So without further ado, here are the results. Each product is listed separately, and the one with the lowest price is in boldface. However, if the Simply Nature product falls within the "rule of 1.6"—that is, it's less than 1.6 times the price of the cheapest competitor—it's in italics.

Toasted oat breakfast cereal
Simply Nature toasted oats: $1.99 for 9 ounces / $3.54 per pound
Cheerios: $3.99 for 12 ounces (largest box they had) / $5.32 per pound
Stop & Shop Oats & O's: $2.99 for 14 ounces / $3.41 per pound
Price premium for organic: 13 cents per pound (4 percent)

Pasta (spaghetti or linguine, same price)
Simply Nature pasta: $1.19 for 1 pound
Barilla pasta: $1.39 for 1 pound
Stop & Shop pasta: $0.99 for 1 pound
Price premium for organic: 20 cents per pound (20 percent)

Pasta sauce (marinara)
Simply Nature: $1.99 for 25 ounces / $2.55 per quart
Francesco Rinaldi: $1.69 for 24 ounces / $2.25 per quart
Stop & Shop: $1.49 for 24 ounces / $1.99 per quart 
Price premium for organic: 56 cents per quart (28 percent)

Salad dressing (ranch or vinaigrette, same price)
Simply Nature: $1.69 for 8 ounces / $6.76 per quart
Wish Bone: $3.39 for 16 ounces / $6.78 per quart
Stop & Shop: $2.39 for 16 ounces / $4.78 per quart
Price premium for organic: $1.98 per quart (41 percent)

Chicken broth
Simply Nature: $1.79 for 1 quart
College Inn: $2.79 for 1 quart
Stop & Shop: $1.99 for 1 quart
Price premium for organic: none

Soup (lentil or chicken noodle, same price)
Simply Nature: $1.99 for 17 ounces / $1.87 per pint
Progresso: $2.49 for 19 ounces / $2.09 per pint
Stop & Shop: $1.29 for 19 ounces / $1.08 per pint
Price premium for organic: 79 cents per pint (73 percent)

Milk (reduced fat)
Simply Nature: $3.39 for 32 ounces / $6.78 per gallon
No name brands of conventional milk were available
Stop & Shop: $3.89 for 1 gallon
Price premium for organic: $2.89 per gallon (74 percent)

Soy Milk
Simply Nature: $2.49 for 1/2 gallon
8th Continent: $3.69 for 1/2 gallon
No store brand of conventional soy milk was available
Price premium for organic: none

Bagged greens (baby spinach or spring mix, same price)
Simply Nature: $2.49 for 5 ounces / $7.97 per pound
Dole: $3.69 for 8 ounces / $7.38 per pound
Stop & Shop: $3.69 for 5 ounces / $11.81 per pound
Price premium for organic: 59 cents per pound (8 percent)

Frozen strawberries
Simply Nature: $2.69 for 12 ounces / $3.59 per pound
Welch's: $4.79 for 1 pound
Stop & Shop: $3.99 for 18 ounces / $3.54 per pound
Price premium for organic: 5 cents per pound (1 percent)

Frozen blueberries
Simply Nature: $2.69 for 10 ounces / $4.30 per pound
Wyman's: $10.49 for 3 pounds / $3.49 per pound
No store brand of conventional frozen blueberries was available
Price premium for organic: 83 cents per pound (24 percent)

As you can see, the Stop & Shop store brand usually—though not always—came out on top. However, in every case except two (bagged greens and frozen blueberries), Simply Nature beat its name-brand competitor—and in both those cases, the competing product was sold in a bigger package, so its lower price may simply be the result of buying in bulk. Moreover, in every case except two (soup and milk), Simply Nature was within the rule of 1.6 compared to its conventionally grown competitors, sometimes costing only pennies more. And in two cases (soy milk and chicken broth), Simply Nature was the cheapest of all, beating even the Stop & Shop brand.

The category in which the Simply Nature brand was most thoroughly trounced was milk. The contest may not have been a completely fair one, since the Stop & Shop didn't have any name brands of milk to compare with it, but the store-brand, conventional milk in a gallon jug had Simply Nature beat by about 75 percent on price. However, this too may be the result of a different package size: conventional milk sold by the half-gallon cost $2.69, bringing the $3.39 half-gallon of Simply Nature well within the rule of 1.6. Still, since most consumers will probably buy by the gallon if given the option, it's fair to say that milk is still much more expensive to buy organic than other products. You may also note that no other animal products appear on my list; the Simply Nature line doesn't include eggs, and the only meats it includes are "natural" rather than organic. So animal products remain an expensive choice for organic eaters (a disappointing discovery for us conscientious omnivores). For all other products, though, it looks like Aldi is bringing the cost premium for buying organic lower than it's ever been before.

So what's the takeaway? Well, if your goal is simply to keep your grocery bill as low as possible, then generally speaking, you're still best off sticking with conventional store brands (though Aldi is probably still the cheapest place to find them). But if you'd like to buy more organic foods and have been put off by the price, you may be able to add more organic edibles to your cart and barely ding your budget at all (particularly if you've previously been buying name brands). And if you're already buying organic as much as possible, but you're cursing the prices every time you load up the cart, then looking for an Aldi store in your area could lighten up your grocery bill significantly.
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