If you want to save money on food, stop buying granola and ice cream. Why? Because factors beyond your control are driving up the cost of those and other foods, like wine, popcorn, and apples. Weird weather is playing a big role, but there are factors impacting our massive, interconnected food system and making it hard for you to save a buck. So what are you supposed to do about it? Put down the coupons. We’ve got some better ideas for keeping your grocery bill from overinflating.
In 2010, apple farmers on the east coast lost nearly $37 million because of damage caused by the brown marmorated stink bug, an invasive species that seems impervious to pesticides. The population that year had soared because of a warm winter in 2009, and it looks like farmers can expect the same kind of alien invasion this year because of 2011’s mild winter, says Tracy Leskey, a research entomologist at the USDA. While farmers and scientists are getting better at controlling these foul-smelling pests, there’s still the potential for some serious damage to eastern apple orchards.
Cheaper swap: Farmers won’t know how much damage they’ve had until the harvest starts in a few weeks, and if there was a lot, you may not see apple prices rise for another few months. Stink bugs seem to favor the East Coast, so keep an eye out for organic apples from Washington State if you’re having a hard time finding good local apples.
Learn More: Heirloom Apples
The horrible drought that hit the Midwest this summer was not kind to field corn, the type of corn fed to animals and turned into processed food, nor did it love popcorn, a water-loving corn variety grown in the Corn Belt, alongside soybeans. The wilting heat and dry conditions caused prices to jump 30 percent this summer.
Cheaper swap: Popcorn can grow in any climate, so look for local brands at your farmers’ market. Not only will it be cheaper; it’ll be safer. Typical microwave-popcorn bags are lined with toxic grease-repelling chemicals, while loose kernels can be popped on your stove or in a paper bag in your microwave—no toxic bag needed.
A string of 80-degree days early in spring, followed by weeks of harsh freezing, spelled doom for Michigan cherry farmers, who grow 75 percent of the country’s sour cherry crop. Some farmers lost as much as 90 percent of their harvests. Why should you care? A lot of those cherries wind up in granola, granola bars, trail mixes, pie fillings, and cherry juice.
Cheaper swap: Cherries are antioxidant powerhouses, but according to research from the USDA, our bodies absorb antioxidants from grapes, wild blueberries, and kiwi better than they absorb those found in cherries. This winter, go for granolas containing raisins and dried wild blueberries, like Nature’s Path certified-organic, high-fiber Cinnamon Raison Granola.
An ingredient popular among ice cream and other processed-food manufacturers is also a favored ingredient in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the natural-gas production method that involves injecting huge quantities of sand, water, and chemicals underground to fracture (or “frack”) shale rock. Guar gum, derived from the guar bean grown in India, is the thickening agent that makes ice cream creamy and salad dressings thick. Natural-gas producers love it because it boosts the viscosity of their water-chemical solutions and cuts down on friction. But thanks to all this competing demand, guar gum has increased in price from $1 per pound to $12 per pound in the span of just 2 years, and you might see that increase reflected in your favorite ice cream brand.
Cheaper swap: Sorbet! It’s healthier than ice cream, because it’s made with fruit, and it isn’t going to contain processed ingredients used in oil and gas drilling.
Some of the country’s best wine comes from the high-quality grapes grown in California, but warming projections for the area could cut wine production in half within 30 years, according to research by Noah Diffenbaugh, a Woods Institute for the Environment fellow and assistant professor of earth science at Stanford University. “The temperatures won’t be suitable,” he says, adding that farmers will have to adapt to try to overcome excessive heat conditions.
Cheaper swap: When you start noticing that your favorite vino is getting out of your price range, switch to beer. Just like wine, beer is full of polyphenolic compounds, which are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and known to protect your immune system.
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