Thursday, November 6, 2014

Organic savings? Not so much

Early this year, the Dollar Stretcher site ran a story called, "Using the Web to Reduce the Cost of Organics." Naturally, this headline grabbed my attention right away, because eating organic, using the Internet, and saving money are a few of my favorite things (cue The Sound of Music score). So I perused the article and then checked out the three sites it recommended for eating organic on a budget. Sadly, though, I didn't find any of them particularly helpful—and at least one looked actually counterproductive.

The first site was called Organic Deals. It's basically a coupon site like CouponMom.com or The Krazy Coupon Lady, but it specializes in coupons for major organic brands and retailers. The biggest problem with it is the same one I have with such sites in general: most of the available coupons are for highly processed and packaged foods, such as cereals, baking mixes, and frozen meals and sides. Unfortunately, these are exactly the types of organic food that, at least based on my observations, tend to cost a lot more than their conventional equivalents. A bag of Alexia sweet potato fries may cost only $3.24 with a coupon as opposed to $4.49 without it, but a pound of whole sweet potatoes for $1.16 is still a much better deal. Not to mention that it doesn't leave you with all that packaging waste to dispose of.

(Now, to be fair, Organic Deals also lists a few deals on whole, fresh produce, but these are mostly at a store called Sprouts Farmers' Market, which is based in Phoenix and doesn't extend into the Northeast or most of the Midwest. If you're lucky enough to have a Sprouts store in your area, it's probably worth checking out, as there seem to be some really nice deals there. But in most cases, they're just sale prices, so you don't need Organic Deals to help you find them.)

The second site, Abe's Market, is an online grocery store that deals in natural and organic products. According to the Dollar Stretcher article, the site has a loyalty program that lets you earn points for shopping and cash them in for savings on future purchases. However, when I checked the site, I could find no information about this program. The site did offer a "Best Price Pledge," promising to refund the difference if you could find the same price for less anywhere else—but unfortunately, the types of products sold here are bound to be expensive anywhere. Like the ones advertised on Organic Deals, they're mostly processed foods rather than whole foods: crackers, fruit leathers, baking mixes, chocolate. Also, they appear to be mostly obscure, high-end brands—so while Abe's may guarantee you that its price of $20 for three is the best you'll find for New Tree Pleasure Dark Chocolate Bars, that's still a lot more than the $2 a bar you'll pay for the Organic Truffle Bar at Trader Joe's.

The third site was the most dubious of the lot. Called Find A Spring, it helps you locate sources of fresh spring water in your area. The article said this was a great deal because "many of us pay for drinking water," which is true—but no one in this country actually needs to pay for drinking water. We can get perfectly drinkable water right out of the tap for free, or virtually free. Municipal drinking water, in fact, is subject to far more rigorous safety standards than bottled water. Moreover, blind taste tests of bottled water in New York City, Boston, and Cleveland show that to most people, it also tastes as good or better.

The Dollar Stretcher article claims that spring water is better than tap water because, first of all, it "contains many natural minerals that are mechanically or chemically removed by your city's municipal water supply," and second, it "has high levels of hydrogen, which is the main antioxidant in water." The first claim is clearly inaccurate: according to this page on water quality from Duke University, "few brands of bottled water offer a significant amount of minerals." The second one is trickier, partly because it's confusing. If the author is suggesting that spring water has "high levels of hydrogen" because it contains more than two hydrogen atoms per oxygen atom, that's ridiculous; if it did, it wouldn't be water. More likely, she's talking about hydrogen gas that's dissolved in water. I did a little searching and managed to locate one or two papers (here and here) that suggest hydrogen-infused water may indeed be linked to better health outcomes in mice and rats. It's a big jump from there, however, to saying that drinking it will reverse health problems in humans. Moreover, when I tried to find out whether spring water was a good source of dissolved hydrogen, the only info I could find was about sulfur springs, which contain hydrogen sulfide—which the Water Research Center describes as poisonous and foul-smelling. It's definitely not something you want to drink more of.

What scientists do agree on about water and health is that the most important thing is to drink enough of it. I'd say it stands to reason that you're likelier to do this when you can simply turn on the faucet to get some than when you have to haul it home in jugs from some remote area. Moreover, most of the sources listed on Find a Spring aren't really free; you have to pay for access to the land, in addition to hauling home the water yourself. This doesn't seem like a money-saving strategy to me.

So this article was pretty much 0 for 3 in terms of useful advice. Instead, I'll be sticking with my tried-and-tested strategies for saving money on organics:
  1. Prioritizing my organic purchases. My biggest concerns are animal welfare and the impact of factory farming on the environment, so I make a point of buying all my meats organic, as well as rainforest products like coffee and cocoa. Other products, like grains, I'm more willing to let slide if it'll save me a buck. If your reasons for eating organic have more to do with health than ethics, you might prefer to choose your organic purchases based on the Environmental Working Group's latest report on pesticide residues in produce.
  2. Cooking from scratch as much as possible. With a few exceptions, like breakfast cereal, Brian and I tend to eschew processed foods and buy mostly whole foods that we can turn into meals and snacks in our own kitchen. This saves us money on the foods we buy organic, and it also saves us money on the ones we don't—leaving us more leeway in the grocery budget to splurge on the organic foods we really care about.
  3. Comparison shopping. I keep a price book that shows what all the stores in our area charge for foods we buy regularly, from apples to yeast. I track the price for whichever version of the product we buy most often, organic or conventional. This means that (a) I know which store to go to when we run low on something, and (b) if something goes on sale, I know whether it's a good enough price to make it worth stocking up.
  4. Buying in bulk. The best example I can think of is baking cocoa, which we buy five pounds at a time from Dean's Beans. A five-pound bag costs $45, or nearly $55 with shipping, which is about $11 a pound—but buying Fair Trade, organic cocoa in a store would cost us closer to $18 a pound.
  5. Buying store brands. Lots of stores now have their own lines of organic products, which rival the cost of name-brand conventional versions. Indeed, as I showed back in June, many of the organic goods sold at Aldi can whip the prices of their conventional competitors hollow.
Yeah, organic food does cost more. But if you shop sensibly, it doesn't have to cost a lot more.
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