The dollars and cents of nuts and seeds

The dollars and cents of nuts and seeds

The dollars and cents of nuts and seeds

Last month I was doing my taxes and hunting through receipts for an item I’d bought at Costco. What jumped out at me instead was the cashews, at $24.99 each, that showed up on nearly every one, so a couple of times a month. Could we really be spending as much on cashews as on my gym membership? Yikes.

I probably should pay closer attention when shopping, but my husband loves the cashews, so I grab a jar whenever I’m there. And it’s big, so maybe $25 isn’t unreasonable? Hard to say unless you look at the unit price, which Costco gives on all the price tags, and compare to other nuts and seeds. So I whipped up a spreadsheet. (I love spreadsheets!) Turns out cashews are among the most expensive at Costco.

Click to enlarge

Would this change your eating habits? When making any food purchase, of course, there are many considerations above and beyond price, from taste to health impacts, allergies and intolerances, convenience, ethics, and sustainability. But in the name of keeping this post simple, I’ll stick to insights about price, other than two key thoughts about nuts, seeds, and health:

  • Nuts and seeds are a welcome part of a heart-healthy diet. Don’t let the fat and/or calories put you off. They’re nutrient-dense little nuggets that can actually decrease cholesterol.
  • There isn’t one “healthiest” nut (or seed). Ignore the people who say to eat 7 almonds every day or whatever. All nuts and seeds are rich in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, antioxidants, and a variety of other nutrients. Some stand out for one reason or another — walnuts and chia seeds for omega-3, for example — so in terms of health, just enjoy a variety of your favourites.

Seven tips for enjoying nuts and seeds without breaking the bank

So back to dollars and cents. After doing this little Costco comparison, I went further and scoured prices online at Superstore, Save On Foods, and even Amazon. (Feel free to email me if you want to see the whole spreadsheet and have a closer look.)

Here are some of the key findings:

  1. Buy the largest package size that makes sense for you. The unit price usually goes down substantially as the package size goes up.
  2. Store nuts and seeds in the freezer or fridge. They stay fresh for a few months at room temperature, but you don’t now how long it’s been since they were harvested, and rancid nuts taste awful (although they’re not harmful). Moving them to the fridge extends shelf life to about a year and the freezer can keep them fresh for two or more years. Now bigger packages make more sense.
  3. The least expensive retailer in my survey was Costco. When I averaged the cost per 100g of the nuts and seeds above, plus sunflower seeds, they were 37% more at Superstore, 38% more from Amazon, and a stunning 61% more at Save On Foods, which might be in need of a new name. (See detailed chart in the appendix below if you have your reading glasses handy.) Pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, tamari almonds, shelled pistachios, and pine nuts were more than 75% more expensive at other retailers vs Costco, so if you like those but you don’t have a membership, it might be worth tagging along with a friend and stocking up.
  4. If cost is an issue for you, don’t buy organic. We don’t have consistent evidence to support nutritional benefits of organic plant foods compared to conventionally grown plants and I hate to see the higher price of organic food being a barrier to eating more fruit, vegetables, or in this case, nuts and seeds. Conventional is fine healthwise.
  5. Pay attention to the unit cost, wherever you shop. The average I found at Superstore was $2.43 per 100g, for comparison. Many nuts and seeds could be had for less than $2.00 per 100g. Between sales, bulk bins, and different brands, there was a great deal of variability.
  6. Enjoy peanuts and sunflower seeds if you like them. I think people tend to look down on them because they’re commonly available and typically less expensive (under a dollar per 100g at nearly every store I checked). But peanuts have been linked to the same heart and longevity benefits as pricer nuts and sunflower seeds are a good source of antioxidants like vitamin E and selenium. They’re a veritable heart health bargain. (Try this recipe with peanuts and another budget-friendly staple, crunchy green cabbage.)
  7. Make your own trail mix. I’ve long said this from a nutritional standpoint, because while I’m all for having a bit of sweetness, you’ll probably use fewer M&M’s, fake “yogurt”-covered raisins, and cranberries, which are just cheap fillers. I took a few trail mix products and estimated the unit price of buying the ingredients separately. (It’s just an estimate because we don’t know the exact proportions they use.) For example, a kilogram of this No Name “Original” trail mix at Superstore sells for $12.98, so $1.30 per 100g. The average unit price of the six ingredients listed is $1.14 per 100g, but if you look at that picture, you can plainly see that the peanuts and raisins ($0.52 and $0.57 per 100g respectively) dominate. Of course if you live alone and don’t eat much, buying a pre-made trail mix might make sense, but if you go through enough, stock up on your favourite ingredients and mix your own.

So would this change your eating habits?

For us, there has been a shift since I did this analysis. My husband is snacking more on tamari almonds, which he likes just as much as cashews. We’re using more sunflower and pumpkin seeds in baked oats, granola and trail mix, especially since the kids can take them to school.

And I was surprised to see the chia seeds were so (relatively) affordable! I always thought they were kind of a luxury item, thanks  to their reputation as a “superfood”. Since they’re also a good source of cholesterol-lowering, blood sugar-stabilizing soluble fibre and heart-healthy omega-3 fat, I’ll be experimenting with more ways to enjoy them.

While cost certainly isn’t the only factor, it does matter to most of us when it comes to healthy eating. What about you? Will any of this change your eating habits? Do you have any other strategies for stretching your food budget when it comes to nuts and seeds? Share on the Sweet Spot Facebook page! I always welcome your insights.

p.s. If the cost of food is a priority for you, I’ve done a similar survey for fruit and vegetables here.


Appendix – number-crunching chart and details

If you’re interested, here’s the chart that compares the numbers. Click to enlarge.

The small print:

  • I included the lowest cost product I could find on a per unit basis, which was usually the largest package size.
  • I skipped any package significantly bigger than about one kilogram, which seems like the largest reasonable size for household use.
  • If something was on sale, I included it at the sale price.
  • This doesn’t take into account the Costco membership fee.
  • All prices were collected between May 7 and 10.