One of the most common objections I hear to eating organic and non-GMO is that it costs too much. We’ve all heard Whole Foods called “Whole Paycheck”, but is that really true? Does it really cost more to buy organic than conventional? I’ve claimed for years that I saved money when I switched to shopping only at Whole Foods and for years people have thought me crazy for saying so. To settle this dispute once and for all, I went to three grocery stores in my area of downtown Atlanta to compare prices of shopping conventional, strictly organic, and a combination of organic and non-GMO to show you what it really costs to eat real food.
The list of grocery items I compared were items you would commonly find on a list of grocery staples and can easily be used to make multiple meals for at least a week. (List with itemized prices at the bottom of this post.) My criticism of other articles that have done similar grocery comparisons is that they often compare conventional to organic as if they are the same. And the items they compare are not items you would find on a normal grocery list, like coconut water, which I consider luxury items. (For real though, if you are bougie enough to be stocking up on single serve coconut waters every time you go grocery shopping, you probably don’t care about how big your grocery bill is anyway.)
Here’s what I found:
Shopping Conventional Only
Whole Foods: Not Possible
Shopping Organic Only
Kroger: Not Possible
Whole Foods: $99.39
Aldi: Not Possible
Shopping Organic and non-GMO
Whole Foods: $67.21
Aldi: Not Possible
While shopping conventional is clearly the cheapest, it also is the least nutrient dense (meaning you need to eat more for your body to feel full) and most likely to contribute to health issues later in life (meaning you will ultimately spend more on healthcare). Shopping strictly organic is clearly the most expensive, with it costing twice as much to shop strictly organic at Whole Foods versus shopping strictly conventional at Kroger. With those numbers, it is easy to see why Whole Foods gets a bad rap as being Whole Paycheck. But comparing conventional to organic prices is not a fair comparison. And while organic does not automatically equal healthy, the nutrient density and risk for health issues are the major difference between conventional and organic even more than the price difference.
So how can you shop organic and not break the bank?
About four years ago my husband and I made the switch from eating a healthy but conventional diet to eating healthy and organic. When we first made the switch it was hard. We had been shopping only at Kroger and found the organic options limited and expensive. Kroger has gotten better in recent years about carrying their own store brand organic (Simple Truth Organic). But even with Kroger expanding their store brand, it is hard to find a Kroger that carries everything in their store brand organic instead of an expensive national organic brand. For this comparison post I went to the largest Kroger in our area (maybe the world) which we lovingly refer to as Krogzilla. While Krogzilla has a large selection of store brand organics the other Krogers in our area have a small Natural Market section that is limited in their selection of store brand organics.
The Natural Market section of another beloved Atlanta Kroger. Five aisles of organic, non-GMO, and “natural”. About a billion square feet less selection than our local Whole foods.
When we made the switch to Whole Foods we found that our grocery bill dropped significantly. The 365 Whole Foods store brand allows us to buy organic without having to buy the expensive name brand organics. Their list of “Unacceptable Ingredients for Food” also allows us to shop freely without having to obsessively checking every ingredient label. While there are a lot of advantages to organic, especially for certain foods, non-GMO and real-food are usually all my family needs to feel good about what we are eating. Which is why, switching to shopping at Whole Foods has saved me and my family money. With the comparison list it only costs $12 more to buy organic/non-GMO at Whole Foods than it does to buy all conventional at Kroger and $10 less than it would cost to buy all organic/non-GMO at Kroger.
Another option to spend less on organic groceries is to shop a combination of Kroger and Whole Foods. I have tried this approach on and off over the years and always end up going back to just shopping at Whole Foods. While you do save a bit on produce, the time and transportation cost of shopping both stores just haven’t been worth it.
I was disappointed in doing the research for this post to find how limited the organic selection is at my local Aldi. I know they have worked hard to expand their organic selection so you may find that your local Aldi has a better selection than mine did.
How do I know what to shop for?
The past six months I’ve been doing some market research, working as a personal shopper for groceries at Whole Foods. The biggest thing I learned in those six months is that people do not know how to shop for groceries. Buying lots of convenience foods like frozen dinners and pre-cut fruit as well as luxury items like single serve coconut water and gourmet cheese and meats add up quickly! You’ll save money and avoid wasting food if you meal plan and shop for meals instead of just random items. The dirty dozen and clean fifteen lists can also help navigating when organic is really necessary. If you find yourself stuck not knowing how to shop for groceries check out this blog post about how to grocery shop and meal plan.
My Itemized List
|Conventional||$3.99 5 oz clamshell||Does not carry||$1.79 8 oz bag|
|Organic||$3.00 5 oz clamshell||$3.99 5 oz clamshell||$2.49 5oz bag|
|Conventional||$ .99-1.99 per lb||$1.99 lb||$2.79 3lb bag|
|Organic||$1.98 lb||$2.79-$3.99 lb||$4.99 lb|
|Conventional||$.55 lb||$.69 lb||$.44 lb|
|Organic||$.65 lb||$.79 lb||$.59 lb|
|Conventional||4 for $5||2 for $4||$1.69 each|
|Organic||$2.39 each||2 for $5||Does not carry|
|Gallon of Milk|
|Conventional||$2.79||Does not carry||$2.39|
|RBGH free/Non-GMO||$4.85 Mayfield RBGH free||$2.99||Does not carry|
|Butter unsalted 16 oz sticks|
|Conventional||$3.69||Does not carry||$2.99|
|RBGH free/Non-GMO||Does not carry||$3.49||Does not carry|
|Organic||$4.49||$4.99||Does not carry|
|Conventional||$1.79||Does not carry||$.99|
|Antibiotic Free/Non-GMO||$2.99||$3.29||Does not carry|
|Organic||$4.49||$3.99||Does not carry|
|Block of cheddar cheese|
|Conventional||$3.59||Does not carry||$1.89|
|RBGH Free/Non-GMO||Does not carry||$3.29||Does not carry|
|Organic||$5.99||$4.99||Does not carry|
|1 lb deli Turkey|
|Conventional||$7.99 lb||Does not carry||$4.42 lb|
|Antibiotic free/nitrate free||$8.99 lb||$11.99 lb||Does not carry|
|Organic||Does not carry||$7.49 6 oz||Does not carry|
|1 lb ground beef|
|Conventional||$4.99 lb||Does not carry||$3.49 lb|
|Antibiotic free/hormone free||$5.99 lb||$4.99 lb||Does not carry|
|Organic||Does not carry||$9.99 lb||Doest not carry|
|1 lb Chicken breasts|
|Conventional||$5.19 lb||Does not carry||$3.49 lb|
|Antibiotic free/hormone free||$6.99 lb||$4.99 lb||$4.29 lb|
|Organic||$6.99 lb||$9.99 lb||Does not carry|
|Box of spaghetti 16 oz|
|Conventional||$1.00||Does not carry||$.79|
|Non-GMO||Does not carry||$1.29||$1.29|
|Organic||$1.49||$1.99||Does not carry|
|Jar pasta sauce 24-25 oz|
|Conventional||$1.89||Does not carry||$.99|
|Non-GMO||$4.99||$1.99||Does not carry|
|Conventional||$1.00 7.25 oz||Does not carry||$.33 7.25 oz|
|Non-GMO||$1.39 6 oz||$.99 7.25 oz||$1.29 oz|
|Organic||$1.89 6 oz||$1.79 6oz $2.99 12oz||Dos not carry|
|Loaf of whole wheat bread|
|Conventional||$1.69||Does not carry||$1.39|
|Non-GMO||$3.39 Nature’s Own||$3.39 Nature’s Own||Does not carry|
|Peanut Butter 16oz|
|Conventional||$2.69||Does not carry||$1.49|
|Non-GMO||Does not carry||$2.49||Does not carry|
|Conventional||$2.49 18oz||Does not carry||$1.49 32oz|
|Non-GMO||Does not carry||$2.99 10oz||Does not carry|
|Organic||$3.39 10oz||$3.99 17.5 oz||Does not carry|
|Oreo style cookies|
|Conventional||$2.99||Does not carry||$1.69|
$4.29 Back to Nature
|$2.99||Does not carry|
|Organic||Does not carry||Does not carry||Dost not carry|
|Cheezit style crackers|
|Non-GMO||$3.59||$3.99||Does not carry|
|Organic||Does not carry||$3.69||Does not carry|
|Conventional||$2.49 2lb||$1.99 lb||$1.19 12oz|
|Organic||$1.69 10oz||$2.79 lb||Does not carry|
*No grocery stores or brands asked me or paid me to do these comparisons. I wrote this article to share what I have learned shopping organic for my own family.