Buying organic on a budget

Producing and eating more organic food is important for the environment. People often say the reason why they don't buy organic is because of the higher cost. However, I found that sometimes the price difference is quite small. So if you do have some room in your budget, how can you best spend it?

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Fieke | 11-06-2023

As a teenager I used to work at an organic grocery store. Sometimes customers would tell me something like “these organic vegetables are too expensive, I’ll go get them somewhere else!”. Of course, I couldn’t blame them. When I’m grocery shopping and I see two identical looking cucumbers next to each other, I tend to go for the cheaper option.

Still, if you can afford it, it might be worth it to sometimes pay a bit more for organic. Why is it important to buy organic products? And why do they often cost more? You can read more about that here and in an upcoming blog. For a quick summary about how to eat sustainably: what you eat remains more important than how your food is produced. Look at our Compass for more details. But maybe you’ve already reduced your intake of meat and dairy and you’re looking for more ways to make a positive impact. If so, you may be wondering how to fit organic products into a (small) budget.

What are the best ways to shop for organic?

To tackle this question, I investigated the price difference between organic and non-organic food. First, I picked 30 products that feature a lot in the Fork Ranger recipes. Then I noted down their prices at different supermarkets and compared them. These supermarkets were Albert Heijn, Jumbo, PLUS and Lidl. Together these represent some of the biggest grocery store chains in the Netherlands.

[Disclaimer: prices were collected over the span of 2 weeks in September 2023. Supermarket prices are likely to change. Supermarkets’ selection of organic products is also likely to change. For example, supermarket PLUS has since committed to phase out conventionally grown potatoes and only sell organic potatoes. The recommendations in this blog are therefore meant to be suggestive/indicative]

Some organic products don’t cost much more

It is true that on average organic products cost more than the non-organic versions. But as it turns out, it varies a lot by product. I found that the prices for organic range from surprisingly affordable to double the price of non-organic. If you stick to the products where the price difference is small, you can swap out quite a few without breaking the bank.

Here are the 5 products that have the smallest difference in price:

Other products with a relatively small price difference (either ≤€0,25 or ≤25% more) include:

  • canned chickpeas
  • canned tomatoes
  • pasta (penne)
  • peanut butter
  • grated cheese
  • potatoes
  • cauliflower
  • bananas
  • bread
  • broccoli

Why not try some of our recipes that use a combination of items from the list above? For example, you could make our Cauliflower Oven Pasta with mostly organic ingredients.

On the other side, there are also some products where the price difference is bigger. The 5 products that have the biggest price difference are:

  • parmesan cheese
  • salted peanuts
  • basmati rice
  • frozen green beans
  • cherry tomatoes

From a budget perspective you can choose to prioritise the cheaper items listed above.

Choice of supermarket matters

When it comes to price, it’s not just about what you buy; it’s also about where you buy it. This is true for groceries in general but also for organic groceries. I was surprised to find that some organic products at an inexpensive supermarket cost less than the non-organic versions at a more expensive store. Here is an overview of organic products you can buy for a lower, similar, or only slightly more expensive price:

So if you normally shop at a more expensive store, check if you have access to discount supermarkets like Lidl and Aldi. Do keep in mind that smaller stores might not have a huge selection of organic products.

Monthly budget for organic

When I’m grocery shopping I can’t help but compare prices of organic and non-organic products that are sitting side by side. But a price difference of say, 20 cents, for a bag of carrots still feels abstract to me. Sometimes it can help to understand what those 20 cents extra mean for a month of grocery shopping.

So here is what I did: I took the products that are available at all the four supermarkets and estimated how much I would buy of these per month. So for example, two bags of carrots.

Then I looked at the price difference. How much would it cost to buy the monthly amount for all these products, and how much extra would it be to buy them organically? Here are the results (averages of all supermarkets):

The difference is roughly 25 euros, regardless of the supermarket. Some supermarket’s prices are just higher in general.

And then I noticed something interesting: an average two-person household in the Netherlands currently spends about €500 a month on food. And research shows that the majority of people are willing to pay a 5% price difference for organic products. Which is exactly the price difference shown in the infographic. So if your financial situation allows for it, what if this image serves a guide to buy all of these always organic?

Personally, this list of groceries was more than I expected. Especially since I also included some of the relatively expensive organic products.

Organic vs. premium brand

Another way to put the price of organic products in perspective is to compare them to the price of premium brand products. For my database of organic vs. non-organic product prices I mostly compared supermarket own-brands. This is because I wanted to make the comparison as fair as possible.

But what happens if you compare own-brand organic with premium brand non-organic? Then the results are quite different. Premium brands are often more expensive than own-brand organic. You can see some examples here:

As someone who likes to track my budget and pays attention to supermarket prices and discounts, some price differences were still surprising.

Over the last few years sales of own-brand products have increased. One of the reasons for this is rising food prices. Own-brand and premium brand now have about an equal market share. So while own-brand products are taking over premium brand in popularity, there is still a significant amount of people who buy premium brand.

What about meat?

For this blog I did not include meat. This is because organic meat comes with an additional set of issues and complexities. We will dive deeper into the question of organic meat in a future blog.

Conclusions

Buying organic on a budget is possible and doesn’t have to be complicated. There are multiple approaches you can take. Like with reducing meat and dairy, you don’t have to switch to buying 100% organic all of a sudden. It’s not an all-or-nothing issue. Why not buy certain products or a share of your groceries organic to make a positive impact?

It’s also important to choose what fits within your lifestyle and budget. The easiest ways to buy organic on a budget are:

  • Prioritise buying organic products with a small price difference
  • Buy organic products at a discount supermarket
  • Choose supermarket/own-brand organic over premium brand non-organic