You're not imagining it -- food prices are going up, with fruit and vegetable prices rising faster than the rate of inflation, according to a USDA report. And while it's more expensive to eat healthy, the more expensive option isn't always better for you. Here's your go-to guide for what's really worth the extra cash and where you can save a few bucks.
Splurge: Pesticide-Heavy Produce
Going organic is one of the more expensive choices, but it's worth it for some produce. Pesticides and herbicides used in conventional farming have been linked to hormone disruptions and cancer. The most contaminated produce, according to the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list, are apples, kale, grapes, strawberries, celery, spinach, bell peppers, cherry tomatoes, hot peppers, potatoes, peaches and nectarines.
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Save: Other Fruits and Veggies
Outside the Dirty Dozen, you can save a few bucks by going for traditionally farmed produce. That's especially true for the EWG's Clean 15 -- a list of the 15 least-contaminated crops, which includes avocados, pineapples, asparagus, mangoes and cabbage.
Go for frozen fruits and veggies to save money by reducing food waste. They are just as nutrient dense as fresh fruits and veggies. If you're looking to save money with canned produce, look for veggies without added salt and get fruit packed in water instead of syrup.
Meat is already one of the most expensive grocery items, but it's worth it to go the extra step for grass-fed, organic meat. Grass-fed beef is higher in heart-healthy, unsaturated fatty acids and lower in artery-clogging saturated fat, according to a Nutrition Journal study. Opting for organic also means your meat hasn't been treated with additional hormones or antibiotics.
Despite the rumors about the risks of hormone use in dairy production, organic milk might not be any better for you than regular milk. Researchers at the Linus Pauling Institute studied milk from over 300 organic and conventional farms and found very little nutritional difference between organic and non-organic milk. While organic milk from grass-fed cattle had slightly more omega-3 fatty acids, other organic milk did not. The bottom line: if you want to spend a little more on organic milk, make sure it's from grass-fed cattle.
The cheapest options in the bread aisle are typically heavily processed white breads, which offer little nutritional value and can disrupt your blood sugar levels. Spend a bit more for bread made with 100-percent whole grains, which are packed with filling fiber, essential minerals and vitamins. Make sure the label says "100-percent whole grains" or "100-percent whole wheat" to ensure your loaf isn't made with a mix of whole wheat and white flour.
Save: Frozen Juice
While fresh-pressed juices might taste slightly better than frozen concentrates, they aren't any healthier. Frozen orange juice, for example, offers lots of vitamin C just like fresh OJ. And both frozen and fresh-pressed juices often contain lots of sugar, which means you should practice moderation to keep your sugar -- and calorie -- intake in check.
Splurge: Omega-3 Eggs
Eggs offer lots of health benefits on their own -- including protein, vitamin A and essential minerals -- but more expensive "designer" eggs offer additional omega-3 fatty acids. These fats promote heart health and prevent chronic diseases, like Alzheimer's. Eating omega-3-rich eggs can also improve cholesterol levels and boost cardiovascular health. Different brands of designer eggs may have different omega-3 levels -- compare nutrition labels to choose the ones that have the most.
Save: Pantry Staples
Stock your cupboards with healthy, low-cost staples to keep grocery costs down. Rolled oats are cheap, have a long shelf life and offer nutritious fiber. Dried lentils and beans are inexpensive sources of protein that you could use in place of meat a few times a week. Bulk grains like quinoa, wheat berries, amaranth and brown rice add nutritional value for just pennies per serving. Mix and match cheaper and more expensive foods to keep your budget balanced without sacrificing flavor.