Healthy food on a budget

Elizabeth Rogers

Can you find nutritious foods grown with fewer pesticides -- and on a tight budget? A new guide reveals some top choices your body and your wallet will love.

It isn’t easy to eat well these days, is it? Trying to find foods that are high on nutrition and low on contaminants such as pesticides is challenging enough. Now we’re looking at price increases of up to four per cent coming in the next year. Is it possible to eat well on a tight budget? Yes, according to experts —  if you know where to look.

Taking their Dirty Dozen and Clean 15 lists a few steps further, non-profit organization Environmental Working Group set out to compile a list of foods that are both healthy and affordable. The group reviewed government surveys and tests of nearly 1200 foods to seek out the top 100 foods that offer the best value in terms of price and nutritional content — and had the least amounts of pesticides, contaminants and processing. In addition to the Top 100, the EWG’s Good Food on a Tight Budget highlights some best buys.

Here are some top picks for inexpensive, healthy foods.

Best buys for healthy foods

Fruits: Love fruit? Try bananas, orange juice, nectarines (domestically grown), pears and watermelon. Apricots (dried or fresh), avocados, tangerines, grapefruit and kiwi also made the top 100.

What about peaches? The EWG says they’re a healthy choice when it comes to nutrition, but may contain more pesticides than other fruit. That fuzzy skin make contaminants harder to wash off.

Dark green vegetables: Overall, the EWG warns this group is more prone to pesticides than other vegetables so it’s worth considering organic options. Broccoli, collards, mustard greens and romaine lettuce were some of the best buys in this category.

Red and orange vegetables: Spanish pumpkin, carrots and tomato juice all got top marks, but sweet potato and pumpkin also made the list. EWG advises caution with bell peppers — while healthy, they tend to be higher in pesticides.

Starchy vegetables: Regular white potatoes got top marks in this category — provided they’re roasted, baked or boiled. Lima beans and corn also make the top 100 (at least until prices go up).

Other top vegetables to buy include cabbage, onions (white and green) and alfalfa sprouts. Zucchini, yellow squash, Brussels sprouts and okra (preferably frozen) also got the nod for good value.

Cereals: Looking for a hearty bowlful to start the morning? Toasted oats offered the best balance, but you can’t go wrong with shredded wheat, puffed corn and puffed whole grains, says the EWG — all were among the top 100 foods.

Grains: Barley comes out ahead, but brown rice and bulgur are in the running.

What if you love your bread and pasta? EWG didn’t rank specific products, but noted that whole grain, low sodium, and high fibre options are best.

Meat: Cooked without skin, turkey was the only meat to get "best buy" status. Also making the top 100 are chicken and the most commonly consumed meat in the world: goat.

When you’re straying outside these choices, EWG recommends leaner meats because they contain fewer pollutants. Processed meats lose out because they’re high in sodium and additives.

Seafood: Plenty of choice for seafood lovers! Squid, silver hake, perch and tuna all make the best buy list (though you’ll want to limit the latter two to once a month as they may contain industrial pollutants).  Cod, haddock, salmon, and tilapia also make the top 100.  (The EWG has more details in its Fish List.)

Beans and legumes: Long known to be cheap and healthy, it’s no surprise so many beans and legumes are best buys, including: black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, pinto beans and red kidney beans.

Nuts and seeds: What are your best options for these plant-based proteins? The EWG recommends hazelnuts, peanuts (roasted but unsalted), sunflower seeds and walnuts. No worry if you love almonds and pecans — they also made the top 100.

Dairy: You can’t go wrong with staples like low-fat and non-fat skim milk — especially if you buy it dried. Cottage cheese, ricotta, queso blanco (Puerto Rican white cheese) and queso fresco are your best bets for cheese. Otherwise, opt for low-fat cheeses and use sparingly to flavour food, not fill up.

What about yoghurt? Plain and non-fat is best, says the guide.

Cooking oil: What you cook with or drizzle on your salad makes a difference too. The best buys for cooking oils include canola, corn and soybean, but heart-healthy olive oil also makes the top 100. (Along with peanut oil and safflower oil.)

However, if you want to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs), EWG recommends pricing out organics.

Eating well on a budget isn’t going to get any easier with rising food costs looming ahead, but it doesn’t have to be needlessly complicated either. Remember, these are the best foods when it comes to balancing nutritional value, less exposure to pesticides and price. There are many good food options out there if you’re willing relax any of these standards.

Of course, we didn’t give away all of the top 100 foods. You can find the rest — along with resources like recipes — by visiting the Good Food on a Tight Budget Guide online.

Photo © Steve Debenport

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