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Advice for Going Green, Saving Green

Since self-improvement means healthier eating, you’ll want to buy organic. Coupon Mom shows you how.

Self-improvement means eating well

Green may be the new black, but it doesn’t have to leave you in the red.

And while I can’t promise that you’ll be able to get cartloads of organic food free every week, it’s still possible to trim your costs…

First, Understand What You’re Buying
The USDA defines organic foods as those free of antibiotics, hormones, pesticides, irradiation, and bioengineering.

“Conventionally grown” refers to fruits and vegetables grown with pesticides and fertilizers. This allows farmers to extend the growing season and increase their harvest and translates into lower prices.

A good first step to buying organic is to make sure you know exactly what you’re paying for. The USDA Certified Organic seal, for example, can be affixed only to items that meet specific criteria.

Before deciding whether it’s worth it to pay for the seal—or for items labeled “natural” or “antibiotic-free”—it’s important to learn the lingo. Here’s a primer to help you understand the terms.

The makers of the foods with the highest concentration—95 percent or more—of organic ingredients are allowed to use the USDA seal. There are four USDA organic standards:

1. 100 percent organic: (can use USDA seal)Foods containing all organically produced ingredients and processing aids, excluding water and salt. Processing aids used in the production of the food may include lime or calcium.

2. Organic: (can use USDA seal)
The product must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients

3. Made with organic ingredients: (cannot use USDA seal)
Processed foods that must contain at least 70 percent organic ingredients. The packaging can list up to three of the organic ingredients on the “principal display panel,” a surface on the packaging that the consumer is most likely to notice.

4. Less than 70 percent of content is organic: (cannot use USDA seal)
Foods that cannot use the term “organic” anywhere on the principal display panel, but the organic ingredients can be listed on the information panel.

If the organic “seal of approval” is important to you, spend your money wisely by ensuring you’re getting the real thing. Look for the USDA seal and read ingredient labels, and don’t rely on marketing claims on the packaging.

Don’t assume items sold in the health-food section are all organic or natural—look for the USDA seal to be sure. And beware of marketing that gets ahead of science. “Organic fish,” for example, is a marketing label, not an official designation.

The USDA defines natural products as those containing no artificial ingredients or added color. Also, such items minimally processed in a manner that does not fundamentally alter the raw product. The label must explain the use of the term “natural,” such as noting “no added colorings or artificial ingredients.” The FDA does not officially define “natural.”

For the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service to define meat as “natural,” the product must come from “animals that have been raised without
growth promotants and antibiotics and have never been fed mammalian or avian by-products.”

If you’re looking for officially sanctioned “natural” products, rely on USDA labels rather than promotional packaging. The ingredient list is also a helpful guide. Nuts are natural; 16-syllable ingredients you can’t pronounce might not be.

Certified Naturally Grown
The USDA requires certification of organic farms that earn more than $5,000 a year. Companies such as Kraft and Dole that own the largest organic companies have the resources to pay for the certification process. Smaller farms generally cannot afford to complete the certification process, even if their products are naturally grown.

To provide an affordable alternative to the USDA certification prices, a group of farmers assembled and created Certified Naturally Grown, a nonprofit certification program. Member farmers use the Certified Naturally Grown (CNG) label. CNG farmers, like organic farmers, produce organic foods with an emphasis on natural, sustainable agriculture….

Locally Grown
The farm-to-table movement is popular with shoppers who prefer to eat food grown across town rather than across the country.

Putting locally grown food on the menu is environmentally friendly, since transporting veggies up the road uses far less fuel and creates much lower emissions than shipping them across the country.

Your grocery store may sell locally grown produce in season, but local farms and farmers’ markets are sure bets. Search at farmersmarket.com or localharvest.org for ones near you.

Tips to Reduce the Cost of Organic Items:

1. Compare prices at different stores.
Include your supermarket’s health food section; mom-and-pop health-food stores and natural markets; larger chains, such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s; Amazon.com; wholesale clubs; and discount supercenters such as Wal-Mart and Target.

You can also check prices at Sam’s Club. The time you’d spend researching prices can translate into significant annual savings.

If you are one of the 32 percent of organic shoppers who buy nondairy products like soy milk, wholesale clubs may be your best bet for savings. CouponMom.com members report finding the lowest prices on soy milk at clubs such as Sam’s and Costco. In my comparisons, I found that the price of Costco’s Kirkland brand of soy milk at $1.08 per quart was less than half the cost of my supermarket’s name-brand price of $2.69.

2. Shop store-brand organics.
Traditional supermarkets are competing for your organic dollar with store-brand organics, and the price difference between name-brand and store-brand organics can be significant. For example, a name-brand 26-ounce jar of organic pasta sauce at a supermarket in my area costs $7.99, while its store-brand counterpart costs $3.39.

Name-brand organic raisin bran cereal costs $4.89, while the store-brand option cost $2.50. The most dramatic example I found was name-brand organic wheat pasta at $5.98 per pound. The store-brand was $1.79 per pound.

You can find the store brand’s organic items in the health-food section of your supermarket, but keep an eye out for organic options throughout the store.

Large natural markets, such as Whole Foods, stock an extensive line of store-brand alternatives. Because larger selections mean better deals, shopping at a supermarket with a large line of organic store brands is a good idea.

3. Check out Trader Joe’s.
Trader Joe’s prices are reasonable, and with its colorful displays and friendly employees all wearing Hawaiian shirts, it’s just fun to
shop there!

This privately held chain operated 300 stores in 25 states as of June 2009. Trader Joe’s primarily carries its own brand of reasonably priced organic and natural products. Stores do not accept coupons or have sales but focus on everyday low prices for their private-label items.

Trader Joe’s shoppers like the stores’ quirky ambience and specialty products, such as Joe Joe cookies or its famous Two Buck Chuck wine.

Some of Trader Joe’s best values are prices on conventional frozen fish, frozen prepared foods, produce, nuts, gourmet cheeses, eggs, and milk.

Organic packaged food prices are competitively priced as well. For example, Trader Joe’s organic pasta and pasta sauce prices were the lowest option in my area. The sauce was $2.29 per 26-ounce jar, while my supermarket’s store brand price was $3.39 for a 26-ounce jar.

4. Shop the bulk department.
When I use the term “bulk” here, I am not referring to super-size packages. Bulk departments sell basic dry goods out of large bins, and you can use plastic bags provided by the store to scoop out the amount you desire.

Some markets also sell products such as honey and nut butters out of bulk containers. You can buy organic beans, teas, grains, flour, oatmeal, or spices this way, and you are less likely to waste food you can’t use.

Don’t assume every item sold in bulk is cheaper; bring your calculator when you shop and compare prices by the ounce or pound to prepackaged items.

Coupons for Organic Products
Look for both store coupons and manufacturers’ coupons and remember that in most cases, you can combine a store coupon with a manufacturers’ coupon.

Ask if your store accepts competitors’ coupons or doubles coupons, to further your savings. I was able to get $25 worth of organic and natural groceries practically free at my supermarket by using these coupon strategies.

Here are some ideas for where to find coupons for organic items:

The newspaper
Organic food coupons are often featured in Sunday newspaper circulars, and you can use the Grocery Coupon Database at CouponMom.com as a guide by searching for the term “organic.”

In-store coupon booklets
Neighborhood health-food stores and chains, such as Whole Foods, feature booklets with store coupons for name-brand items. Whole Foods’ in-house magazine, The Whole Deal, features recipes, money-saving tips, product information, and about $30 worth of store coupons.

You can pick up the magazine in stores or download it from the Whole Foods website. The online version doesn’t always feature all of the coupons found in the hard copy, so be sure to seek out the version in the store.

Manufacturers’ websites often feature coupons you can print. Be sure to sign up for e-mail newsletters, which also may include coupons. We found printable coupons at more than 50 organic manufacturers’ websites.

E-mail requests
Tough economic times put consumers in powerful positions. Ask for coupons, and often you’ll receive some.

We sent polite e-mail requests to 57 companies and received coupons back from 26 of them, totaling a face value of $83. A few were for free items. I received two coupons for free one-pound containers of my favorite organic spring salad mix, priced at $5.99, and one for a free box of tea that costs $5.

Earth Day coupon booklets
Look for grocery coupon booklets distributed in many supermarkets beginning April 1 to promote Earth Day. The 2009 Go Organic for Earth Day coupon booklet featured $12.50 worth of coupons for a wide range of products. These booklets are usually distributed via in-store displays. Find one near you at Organic Earth Day website

Store mailing lists
Visit the websites of your natural-food stores and sign up for their e-mail newsletter and mailing list to receive coupons and information about sales and special offers.

It may take a little more effort to find coupons and combine them to cut your costs on organic groceries, but it can pay off.

I tested the Strategic Shopping concept at my supermarket, using coupons from manufacturers’ websites, coupon booklets, newspaper circulars, and my e-mailed requests. I bought $35.37 worth of items and after applying all my coupons I paid $9.61. I saved $25.76, or 73 percent…

Who said buying organic has to be pricey?

Skip the High Price of Convenience
I bet your grandmother lived the organic lifestyle generations before it was hip and trendy. Try these retro ideas to save on your modern family’s organic choices.

1. Instead of buying boxed organic chicken stock for $3.99 a quart, use the leftover bones from your organic chicken with organic vegetable scraps and simmer your own stock. Then, freeze concentrated stock in ice-cube trays and keep the cubes in a bag in the freezer to have convenient portions ready when you need them.

2. Soak dried organic beans rather than buying canned beans.

3. Add your own seasonings to the organic rice you purchase in bulk rather than buying more expensive rice mixes.

4. Make your own soups, cookies, muffins, pizza crusts, and casseroles rather than paying a premium for preparation. If you make several batches at once and keep the extras in the freezer, you create your own “convenience foods” without paying the preparation premium.

A Final Word
Organic food that comes from small farms that don’t use pesticide typically will cost more than food produced on giant corporate farms. But if buying organic is important to you for health or environmental reasons, taking the time to research savings possibilities will pay off.

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