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When to Spend and When to Save at the Grocery Store

author image Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN
Jackie Newgent, RDN, CDN, is a chef, nutritionist, recipe developer, media personality and award-winning cookbook author. She’s a cooking instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and frequent contributor to Rachael Ray Every Day magazine. Her newest book is the second edition of "The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook." Instagram/Twitter: @jackienewgent

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When to Spend and When to Save at the Grocery Store
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With more than 42,000 items carried in a typical supermarket (in addition to a dizzying array of marketing claims related to health benefits of foods and beverages), it can seem like a daunting task to figure out when you should splurge for the higher-priced version and when you should save your money. Is organic best? Does name brand matter? Is a store brand or buying from a bulk bin OK? To help you sift through the hype and confusion, we’ve broken down these 10 popular grocery items and determined which are worth the extra bills and when you should pinch your pennies.

SAVE: Olive Oil
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Rich in monounsaturated fats, olive oil is a heart-friendly oil no matter what brand you buy or its country of origin. For the richest flavor, choose “extra-virgin” olive oil; it’s obtained naturally from crushing the fruit of the olive tree. For the best nutritional profile, fresher is better. Store the oil in a cool, dark place to keep it at its best. Don’t feel you need to buy the priciest option for the tastiest oil. Surprisingly, some of the most versatile extra-virgin olive oils to use in your everyday cuisine are lower-priced varieties. Even a store brand can be an excellent choice. If you have an opportunity, do a taste test to find your favorite. Plus, unlike canola, corn and soybean oil, you don’t need to worry about GMOs in olive oil since olive production is presently free of genetic modification.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

SPLURGE: Canned Beans
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Canned beans, such as cannellini, pinto and black, are all plant-based winners as satiating foods with their synergistic duo of protein and dietary fiber. However, not all canned beans are created equally. First, regular canned beans may contain one or more additives, including calcium disodium EDTA, which is sometimes added to help retain color. It can interfere with nutrient absorption. Another concern is related to the can itself. Many can linings contain a chemical called bisphenol A (BPA). This is a known endocrine disruptor. The easiest way to avoid additives is to purchase organic beans. The easiest way to avoid BPA in canned beans (or other canned products) is to check out the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website; they list BPA-free brands, including Amy’s and Westbrae Natural.

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

SAVE: Dry Spices
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Dry spices provide a punch of antioxidants with virtually no calories or sodium. Using them in cooking is one of the easiest ways to add flavor while boosting health benefits. For the most flavor and benefits, the key is not the cost or the cachet of the spice; it’s the age of it. Fresher is better, even if it’s generic bulk spice. Whole spices stay fresh longer (up to four years) than ground spices (up to three years). So buy whole spices and grind your own in a coffee grinder or spice mill. If you don’t know your spices’ ages, use your senses: If spices have only a faint aroma, little flavor and faded color, replace them. But don’t waste your money on a large economy-size spice if you don’t use it often; much will wind up as food waste and a waste of money.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

SPLURGE: Canola Oil
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Canola oil is one of the most popular oils used in America today, due to its healthful fatty acid profile, neutral flavor and high smoke point. Like olive oil, it’s rich in monounsaturated fats. However, unlike olives, most of the canola crop used to make conventional canola oil is from genetically modified seeds. Approximately 90 percent of the U.S. crop is GMO. Additionally, a significant amount of processing goes into the traditional production of the oil, including chemical (solvent) extraction, refining and deodorizing. The easiest way to avoid chemical solvents and GMOs in canola oil is to buy an expeller-pressed, USDA certified organic brand -- or look for the Non-GMO Project verification seal on the bottle.

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

SAVE: Avocados
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Avocados are naturally nutrient-rich fruits with plenty of health benefits, including those associated with heart and eye health. Though chemical pesticides are used in conventional avocado production, pesticide residue related to their consumption is not a concern. In fact, the avocado is on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2015 “Clean 15” list, which means there’s little pesticide residue. It’s their number-one cleanest produce pick! Just one percent of the avocados studied by EWG had any measurable pesticides. Plus, you peel away the entire outer skin of the fruit. Taken together, this means when determining which fruit to splurge on and buy organic, avocados don’t need to be one of them.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

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Apples are the number-one fruit listed on the Environmental Working Group (EWG) 2015 “Dirty Dozen” list. That’s not the position that you want to be in if you’re fresh fruit. It means that apples had the most pesticide residue compared to all other produce they tested. More specifically, out of all apples they sampled, 99 percent contained at least one pesticide residue. These residues are potentially cancer-causing! So if you’re able to afford just one of your fruits in organic form, pick the apple! Though do remember that the benefits of eating fresh produce outweigh the risks if you must stick with conventional varieties. Scrub them well either way!

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

SAVE: Dry Pasta
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Though there might be slight flavor nuances between various brands of dry pasta, all traditional pasta in America is made from the same basic recipe. Whole-wheat spaghetti is made from whole-grain wheat flour. “White” spaghetti is made from a wheat flour along with additional niacin, iron, thiamin, riboflavin and folic acid. Both types are excellent sources of complex carbohydrates. Though you only get whole-grain benefits (and naturally more fiber!) from whole-wheat pasta. And whether made in Italy or America, wheat is currently a non-GMO crop, so there’s no need to buy an organic or fancy Italian brand (unless you just want to). Besides, most of the flavor of a pasta dish comes from what you put on it, not the pasta itself.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

SPLURGE: Canned Tuna
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Though you’ll get high-quality protein and heart-healthful omega-3 fats from any canned tuna, you may also get excessive levels of mercury (technically methylmercury) if you don’t choose wisely. This pollutant can build up in your bloodstream over time. It can also cause harm to an unborn baby or young child’s nervous system. Based on current FDA and EPA guidelines, it’s advisable for adults to eat canned white or albacore tuna no more than once a week, based on a six-ounce portion. Canned light tuna generally has a little less mercury. But the best bet is to buy a brand of low-mercury, sustainably sourced tuna, such as Wild Planet, that specifically states this on the BPA-free can, pouch or jar label or on credible website materials. It’s worth the splurge!

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

SAVE: Water
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Water is the cheapest beverage available in the U.S. -- even with parts of the country facing a drought! There are so many bottled varieties of water available today touting everything from premium quality and taste to superior nutritional advantages, including being the “fountain of youth.” But the fact is that nearly 100 percent of any water is still plain old water. So save yourself lots of money and stick to tap water from a safe water supply -- like from your own faucet. If you like, splurge just on a water-filter pitcher for added assurance that your water contains no significant contaminants. And for healthier, hipper water, add your own natural ingredients like citrus slices or fresh herbs and serve it from cool reusable bottles. This way you’ll also be helping to save the planet by insuring no bottles are being manufactured or tossed.

Related: 16 Snacks That Are OK to Eat at Night

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If you’re buying conventionally produced beef, at minimum be sure it’s raised without antibiotics; this may help reduce the occurrence of “superbugs,” which are antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Ideally, select organic beef; it’s from animals that aren’t given antibiotics or artificial growth hormones, and their feed is certified organic. If you can, go one extra step and choose 100 percent grass-fed beef; the animal’s diet throughout their lifespan is mainly grass. Buying grass-fed beef rather than grain-fed beef is an investment in your health because it’s likely more nutrient-rich than its conventional counterpart, including providing potentially more carotenoids and omega-3s.

Related: 20 Foods to Always Buy Organic (Even If You’re On a Budget!)

What Do YOU Think?
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On what products do you spend a little extra money? What items do buy on the cheap? Do you buy organic? Do you shop from the bulk bins? Share your save-or-splurge shopping tips with us in the comments below.

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