Category Archives: Organic on a Budget

A Flavor and Cost Review of Whole Grains

Since I made the maple raisin scones using millet flour, I have been interested in learning more about whole grains. Since my use of millet flour was such a success, what other whole grains could I use?

Grains are the seeds of certain plants. Inside the seed is the germ, and attached to the germ is a starch called the endosperm. Both are protected inside the bran that surrounds them. When grains are refined, the bran and germ are stripped away, leaving the starchy part that is less nutritious. When in the grocery store, look for labels that list whole wheat flour, whole oats, or other whole grains. Wheat flour is not a whole grain.

The following chart is adapted from the Whole Foods Market Magazine, North Atlantic Region, Spring 2011. The chart lists all of the whole grains along with their characteristics and other intereting food facts.

The economist in me also decided to do a cost comparison among the whole grains. So I searched for each whole grain on Amazon, and chose the first one listed to create a relative whole grain price index. I divided the price per ounce for each of the whole grains. It is interesting to note that the spread among the prices for the whole grains is not too large, although rye is the least expensive and quinoa is the most expensive. Compared to alternative sweeteners, whole grains are a relatively good deal!

If you are willing to buy in bulk, Whole Foods Market allows customers to special order bulk items in “case” quantities to receive a 10% discount off regular bulk retail price. It’s another way to keep your grocery bills on a budget.

I now have my sights on some other whole grains to try…which do you plan to try, or which ones do you already use?

Sweet Cost Comparisons

Hi! Now that I have made the switch to natural sweeteners, I have noticed that my grocery bills have increased. Since I have a sensitivity to cane sugar I have an incentive to purchase the natural alternatives, but I want to be informed about which ones to use as substitutes so I don’t break the bank. And for people who are trying to cook with healthier ingredients, it may be helpful to see which ones are more cost-effective. So the economist in me felt the need to do some investigating, particularly to determine which options are the least expensive per unit while accounting for the relative sweetness. Break out the spreadsheets – sensitiveeconomist is doing some calculations!

First I gathered all of my favorite natural sweeteners and entered in the costs and net weights into the spreadsheet. By dividing these two numbers, I obtained a per unit cost. Next, I compensated for their sweetness ratios by multiplying the per unit cost by how much one uses to substitute for one cup of cane sugar. For example, I use 2/3 cup honey for 1 cup of cane sugar, so I multiplied all of the honey options by 2/3.

The results are displayed graphically in the chart. No wonder people tend to use cane sugar – it’s quite inexpensive. The least expensive natural sweetener is a store brand non-organic clover honey. However, an interesting find is that local honey and organic agave, when bought in bulk, offer relatively inexpensive options, and can be cheaper than typical organic store and national brand honey. Maple sugar and syrups are the most expensive.

My verdict? I am going to buy store brand clover honey for baking since there is a cost savings and there should be no effect on the taste. In addition, I’ll look for local honey and organic agave nectar in bulk for baking and drizzling on top of foods, since they have long shelf lives and are quite tasty. I’ll save the maple for special occasions.

I look forward to hearing how you choose between different foods at the grocery store. Don’t be afraid to pull out a spreadsheet for some extra analyses. Ah, the power of spreadsheets!

Exit Stage Left: Food Pyramid. Enter Stage Right: Food Plate

Earlier this month the U.S. Department of Agriculture released new dietary guidelines for Americans that are demonstrated with the MyPlate icon. The sections of the plate show the recommended food groups with fruits and vegetables taking up half of the plate, and proteins and grains making up the other half.

According to a Wall Street Journal article, the federal government has been offering dietary advice for more than one century. Guidelines in the 1940s focused on the “Daily 8” and in the mid-1950s there were the “Basic 4.” A food wheel icon appeared in the 1980s with the food pyramid icon arriving in 1992. The pyramid was often criticized by nutritionists as confusing and not mentioning the benefits of healthy oils since they were suggested to be used only sparingly.

The mission of the MyPlate campaign is to reduce childhood obesity, which impacts health care costs and worker productivity, and therefore the national economy. The cost of the MyPlate campaign is $2.9 million over the next three years. Contrast that with a Stonyfield Farm blog that mentions in 2008, a leading fast food company spent $1.2 billion on marketing their foods that most likely will not be highlighted in the MyPlate campaign.

The new MyPlate website has some useful tips on what is included in each of the food categories. I found the list of whole grains to be particularly useful. In fact, I think that the new icon is more helpful in understanding the proportions of different food groups on my dinner plate. I would be interested in hearing your opinions on the MyPlate campaign as well! Please leave a comment below or check out this blog on Facebook.

What’s the Beef About Grass-Fed Beef?

I have wonderful memories as a child and young adult where my dad would fire up the grill for the steaks and my mom would make baked potatoes and vegetables. If it was a warm day, we would eat our delicious dinners on the deck. Oh yum…I can almost smell the steaks right now!

My love affair with a tasty steak continues. I do not eat them nearly as often as I used to although they are still seen at happy events and occasions. I just like to celebrate with a filet, tenderloin or strip steak on my plate!

A few weeks ago, while perusing the meat counter at the natural foods store, I made a decision – to purchase some grass-fed beef.

What is grass-fed beef? According to the USDA, the cows only eat what is in the pasture. This contrasts with typical grain-fed beef, which starts at pasture for the first year and then moves to a feedlot for a diet of corn, soy, grains, supplements, hormones and antibiotics. Research from Cooking Light notes that grain-fed beef can get up to weight for slaughter up to one year faster then their grass-fed counterparts, which is a financial incentive for the farmers.

Is there a nutritional benefit to grass-fed beef? Sure. According to this Time article, 100% grass-fed meat is lower in saturated fats, slightly higher in omega-3 fatty acids and higher in vitamins A and E.

So how does the grass-fed beef taste? When I made that first purchase, I got one package to eat fresh and one package to freeze for later. The fresh beef, which is shown in the picture above, was absolutely delicious. My husband seasoned the steaks with kosher salt and fresh ground pepper, and grilled them for a slightly shorter time than our usual grain-fed meat (because they were so lean). We both agreed that these steaks were much better than the usual ones. A couple of weeks later, we defrosted the frozen steaks and grilled them the same way. However, they were not quite fully defrosted, and in compensating we ended up overcooking them. Grass-fed beef is less forgiving to overcooking, so keep that in mind.

The cost is relatively high; I spent almost 50% more on the grass-fed meat. However, buying grass-fed is not just an economic decision – it can be an environmental or health decision too. Growing grass is easier on the environment than growing corn, and the decreased use of antibiotics and hormones are other reasons that people hand over more “green” for the grass-fed varieties. A less expensive per-pound alternative is to buy directly from a farm. Check out a listing of farms in you area at the website for the American Grassfed Association.

Will I buy more grass-fed beef? You bet! It is a wonderful treat.