Vote With Your Wallet: 3 Ways to Ease Your Conscience Without Blowing Your Budget

Mixed race woman shopping for groceries
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When you go grocery shopping, what's your biggest worry? Saving money? Eating healthily? Protecting the rights of the people who pick your grapes? Or do you just want to get out of the store as quickly as possible?

In 1954, consumer behavior expert Gregory Stone identified four types of shoppers: those who were concerned with bargains, those who were concerned with their treatment in a store, those who didn't care about their shopping experience, and those who were "ethical." The last group, he wrote, perceived "shopping in the light of a larger set of values," and judged their purchases and store choices in terms of "moral consequences."

For Stone's ethical shoppers, the main concern was who owned their store: They preferred locally-owned shops to big chains. But for today's ethical shopper, a variety of other worries come into play. The healthy shopper may be concerned with pesticides or factory-farming processes, artificial ingredients or added sugar. Meanwhile, the political shopper may be worried about the policies of a particular food company or the treatment of farm workers, the fishing techniques that a company employs or its political alliances.

But regardless of the ethical shopper's concerns, chances are that he or she is trying to balance them with worries about the high cost of food ... and therein lies the difficulty. It's easy to eat healthily when you have unlimited money to spend on free-range chicken or organic grapes. It's harder, however, to balance your political and dietary concerns when you also need to watch your pennies. With that in mind, here are three guidelines that may help you eat more wisely without breaking the bank.

1. Big Business Doesn't Always Mean Bad Business

Part of the reason that high-quality healthy foods cost so much is because they are usually made in smaller batches, by small-scale manufacturers who have to buy ingredients in smaller lots. Big companies, on the other hand, are able to take advantage of economies of scale, which enable them to produce larger quantities at lower cost. In theory, at least, this means that they should be able to sell you better quality food at bargain prices.

In some cases, it works. Kashi, which is owned by Kellogg's (K), offers an array of low-salt, high-fiber, relatively healthy cereals that don't cost much more than their less-healthy competitors. The same goes for several other brands, including Newman's Own, Amy's Kitchen and Annie's Homegrown products, all of which are widely available and all of which tend to be healthier -- and not much more expensive -- than their competitors.

Of course, there are times when the marketing doesn't match the contents -- and when seemingly-healthy cereals are loaded with extra sugar, salt, high-fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated oils and other unhealthy additives. And even well-regarded companies like Kashi can have their shortcomings: In 2012, a viral campaign attacked the company for putting genetically-modified grains in some of its cereals. Still, with a little bit of research -- and a little bit of label-reading -- you can often find relatively healthy foods from some of the least-likely companies.

2. Read Labels

That leads us to another useful point: If you want to eat healthily, you'll need to start reading labels. At first, this can be daunting, as you may find yourself faced with dozens of weird ingredients, all printed in 8-point font. If you find yourself overwhelmed, you may want to start off small, focusing on only a few additives.

There's a lot of useful information on the internet, and severalwebsitesofferlists of the most dangerous ingredients. A good place to start is with your most pressing health concerns. Personally, I avoid high-fructose corn syrup (because it makes me hyper), salt (because it raises my blood pressure), trans fats (because I'm watching my cholesterol), and monosodium glutamate (because my wife tells me I should). Depending on your tastes, your watch list might be different.

But reading labels isn't all about negatives -- it can also focus on positive things. For example, I try to seek out foods that are high in fiber, which tend to make me feel full and are good for my heart. I also try to find foods with only a few ingredients, preferably ones that I can recognize.

3. Research Your Meat

Some of the biggest concerns facing food buyers these days revolve around meat. On the health side, factory-farmed beef, chicken and pork are often packed full of antibiotics, artificial hormones, questionable feed and dangerous bacteria. Beyond that, many meatpacking workers toil under extremely unsanitary, dangerous conditions, and factory-farmed animals are often raised in horrifying circumstances.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%So what can you do? One option is buying free-range or organic meats, which are raised in better conditions, without unnecessary antibiotics and hormones. Unfortunately, organic meats tend to be expensive, and the better the life of the animal, the more you are likely to pay for it.

Another option is to look for halal or kosher meats. Because of Jewish and Muslim dietary laws, these animals tend to be more carefully raised, slaughtered and butchered. And, because of economies of scale, they are often cheaper than organic or free-range meats.

You can also try to limit your meat shopping to stores that are careful about the provenance of their meat. On the one hand, this can be as simple as having a conversation with your neighborhood butcher, who might be able to tell you where your meat came from and how it was prepared.

You might especially want to ask about mechanical tenderization. By common practice, "needled" or "blade-tenderized" cuts are pierced with very small knives that can push bacteria below the surface of the meat. This practice, which hasn't been broadly publicized, has been responsible for hundreds of food poisoning cases.

With that in mind, you may also consider doing your meat shopping at Costco (COST): Following a tainted meat scandal, it became one of the few big retailers to label its mechanically tenderized meat.

Ultimately, whether you're buying meat or grain, soup or cereal, balancing your conscience and your budget isn't always easy. On the bright side, though, it comes with some major payoffs: With a little bit of research, a little more care in your shopping habits, and a little more label reading, you can see some real improvements in your health -- and in the quality of your food. Even apart from the health and taste benefits, it never hurts to know where your food comes from -- and, to some extent, how the sausage is made.

Bruce Watson is DailyFinance's Savings Editor. You can reach him by e-mail at, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.