Which grocery items are affordable and healthy?

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Smart grocery shopping is increasingly important during the coronavirus pandemic. Here, we'll review the evidence on eight grocery items that are:

  • Relatively inexpensive
  • Filling and tasty
  • Widely-available
  • Nutrient-dense

The coronavirus pandemic has changed everything, including grocery habits.

Salaries are lower, many jobs have been lost, and uncertainty is at a high. As a result, way more people are sensitive to food prices.

So in this post, we’ll review eight of the best grocery deals. They’re split into four plant-based foods and four animal-based foods, for those of you with dietary restrictions.

Plant-based foods

Potatoes: around 55 cents per large potato

Potatoes are sometimes villainized due to their being starchy and without color. But compared to white flour, with which they are sometimes lumped, they are way richer in micronutrients, and much more filling.

A study of 38 common foods found boiled potatoes to be the most satiating, calorie for calorie.[1] Another study suggested that potatoes and beans provide a bigger “bang for your buck” (in micronutrients and fiber) than any other vegetable.[2]

But why are white potatoes listed here, and not sweet potatoes?

First, white potatoes tend to be more available when supermarkets are running low on produce, as there are several varieties of white potato available and a multitude of frozen options.

Second, sweet potatoes may cause gut distress in people with digestive issues because they’re high in FODMAPs, specifically polyols.[3]

Lastly, while sweet potatoes are a good source of beta-carotene, and have been used for improving the vitamin A status of children in developing countries,[4] conversion to the active form of vitamin A (called retinol) may be low, depending on your genetics, [5][6] and decreases as you ingest more beta-carotene.[7]

White potatoes are among the most widely available foods, and they’re also cheap, versatile, and filling.

Lentils: around 11 cents per quarter cup dry

Bulk lentils are incredibly inexpensive. They’re also a staple protein source for vegans and vegetarians, and are culinarily flexible due to their mild flavor. They should not serve as your sole protein source, however, because they’re low in the essential amino acids methionine and cysteine.[8]

The prebiotics and polyphenols in lentils may also benefit the health of your gut microbiome.[9] Be careful if you have gut issues, though, since high amounts of lentils may cause gut distress, unless they’re soaked and thoroughly cooked.[10]

You can’t get much cheaper than bulk lentils, and they may help improve gut health — but they may also cause gut distress in people with sensitive tummies.

Carrots: around 15 cents per carrot

Carrots are a unique fridge item because of the many ways they can be used. They can be eaten raw as a quick snack, dipped into a variety of dips, or cooked in a few different ways.

One of the main advantages of carrots is that they’re dirt cheap. They provide a good ratio of nutrient density to cost.[11]

Many people buy only baby carrots, which are snack size and already washed. But whole, unwashed carrots are much cheaper, so don’t ignore them. Carrots in general fill a unique niche: they’re widely available, don’t need cooking, and are filling and satisfying because of their high fiber content, crunch, and touch of sweetness.

Carrots are a good snack option: their fiber and water content promotes satiety, and they taste good to boot!

Frozen berries: around 67 cents per cup

Fresh berries are very expensive, with organic varieties being some of the most expensive types of produce you’ll see in supermarkets.

But frozen berries are much cheaper, they don’t run the risk of growing moldy like fresh berries, and they’re similarly rich in micronutrients. Frozen berries are often picked at their peak of freshness, and can be eaten in a variety of ways. They’re a mainstay of delicious smoothies, or they can be combined with oatmeal to make a crisp, or with yogurt to make for a quick and satisfying treat.

The health benefits of berries have been widely studied, with blueberry having the most research, including on neuroprotection and cardiometabolic health.[12] Other berries may be just as healthy, mind you, but they have much less research behind them. Less research doesn’t mean none, however; for example, trials on strawberries have shown benefits for atherosclertic risk.[13]

Berries, especially blueberries, have a good amount of research for their health benefits. Fresh berries can be prohibitively expensive, but frozen berries are much cheaper and won’t go bad if you forget to eat them.

Animal-based foods

Frozen wild-caught salmon: a dollar seventy-five per quarter pound

Even though dozens of types of fish are commonly eaten, salmon has emerged as the most popular, outside of canned tuna.

Part of salmon’s appeal lies in its omega-3 content, since the public’s interest in omega-3s has greatly increased over the past couple of decades. Salmon is also highly visible at the grocery store and commonly available both fresh and frozen (the latter option being much cheaper).

Wild-caught salmon has several potential advantages over farmed salmon. The latter is often fed a more plant-based diet, compared to decades past, which means their omega-3 content has decreased while their omega-6 content has increased.[14][15] Farmed salmon is also higher in a few contaminants such as dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).[16][17]

Note that you don’t have to eat fish high in omega-3s in order to get enough omega-3s in your diet. You can eat fish lower in omega-3s, or even no fish at all. Your omega-3 needs are actually quite low, but overconsumption of cheap vegetable oils contributes to harmfully high ratios of omega-6s to omega-3s in many people’s diets.[18] So rather than relying on large amounts of omega-3 fish or supplements, an easier and cheaper route could be to reduce your consumption of cheap vegetable oils high in omega-6s.

Wild-caught salmon has much wider availability than other wild-caught seafood options. While farmed salmon also provides high levels of omega-3s, wild-caught salmon has a better ratio of omega-3s to omega-6, as well as lower contaminant levels.

Pasture-finished ground beef: a dollar seventy-five per quarter pound

Along with wild-caught salmon, the other main option when looking for products made of naturally fed animals is pasture-raised beef. In the US, sales of pasture-finished beef have gone from $17 million in 2012 to $272 million in 2016.[19]

Other than beef and fish, animals raised for their meat are seldom naturally fed. For example, chickens in the wild are omnivores who will eat bugs and small animals when possible. Chickens sold in grocery stores, on the other hand, have usually been tightly packed in barns, with little if any access to the outdoors, and fed a 100% vegetarian diet that includes corn and soy supplemented with the amino acid methionine.

Pasture-finished cows eat grass in higher amounts than non-pasture-finished cows (who also start their lives eating grass but are later transitioned to eating corn and soy in feedlots) and thus receive more of the fatty acids in grass. This makes the beef taste different (some say more “gamey”) but also substantially boosts its content in omega-3 and conjugated linoleic acid.[20][20]

Among the main land-animal options — chicken, pork, and beef — only one is widely available as “naturally fed” meat. And that is grass-fed, pasture-finished beef. It has a better fatty acid profile than non-pasture-finished beef.

Canned oysters: a dollar per two ounces

Canned oysters can be considered cheap only when compared to fresh shellfish options; as a source of protein, they’re still very expensive. So why would you consider buying them? There is one major reason: mineral content.

Oysters are extremely high in zinc — two ounces of oyster contain nearly 400% of the recommended zinc intake. They’re also rich in copper, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. Oysters are a nutritional powerhouse, especially for people who don’t eat much other animal products and may be low in those nutrients that are rare in plant-based foods.

Fresh shellfish isn’t an option for most people, because of cost or availability. Canned oysters provide a relatively cheap option for getting high levels of certain micronutrients in whole-food form.

Pastured eggs: a dollar per two eggs

Eggs are typically seen as a cheap source of protein. But pastured eggs aren’t actually that cheap compared to other animal protein sources, unless you have backyard chickens. So why are they on this list?

Compared to non-pastured eggs, pastured eggs are higher in omega-3s and fat-soluble vitamins.[21][22] That said, even non-pastured eggs are nutrient powerhouses. Eggs contain especially high levels of choline, an essential nutrient with a variety of health benefits.[23] They’re also good sources of B vitamins, highly-bioavailable vitamin A, and selenium. Nutrients are concentrated in the yolk, so don't expect to be able to throw away the yolk (maybe because you fear it will raise your cholesterol) and still obtain all those benefits.

Perhaps the most appealing feature of eggs is their versatility. Eggs can be hard boiled then stored as a protein-rich snack. They can also be part of a wide variety of dishes such as quiche, omelets, and scrambles.

Eggs make for a unique mix of palatability, culinary versatility, and micronutrient density. Pastured eggs are much more expensive, but they have an even better nutrient profile.

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3.^Nanayakkara WS, Skidmore PM, O'Brien L, Wilkinson TJ, Gearry RBEfficacy of the low FODMAP diet for treating irritable bowel syndrome: the evidence to dateClin Exp Gastroenterol.(2016 Jun 17)
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17.^Foran JA, Carpenter DO, Hamilton MC, Knuth BA, Schwager SJRisk-based consumption advice for farmed Atlantic and wild Pacific salmon contaminated with dioxins and dioxin-like compoundsEnviron Health Perspect.(2005 May)
18.^Simopoulos APThe importance of the ratio of omega-6/omega-3 essential fatty acidsBiomed Pharmacother.(2002 Oct)
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