Budget-friendly heart-healthy food part 2: Whole grains and proteins

Eating with heart health in mind can seem painfully expensive, from omega-3 eggs to wild salmon and quinoa. In reality though, many cardioprotective foods are actually quite budget friendly!

Last week we talked about how to keep a lid on your fruit and vegetable budget. This week we’ll take a look at the cost of the other key components of heart-healthy eating: Whole grains and protein sources.

As before, I did the comparison using the online shopping tool for Save On Foods, using just regular, not sale prices. You could certainly save by watching for sales though, or by shopping lower cost retailers.

(I chose Save On Foods because it’s easy to find unit prices in their online shopping tool, not because their prices are particularly budget-friendly. They’re not. Anyhow, prices where you live will likely vary, but it should give you an idea of relative cost of different foods.)

Whole grains

Whole grains are often pricier than refined grains, but in terms of cost per calorie, they’re still budget friendly, relative to produce and animal proteins.

Your best bets cost-wise are brown rice, oats, and barley. Whole wheat couscous was similarly affordable in a hefty 907 gram package at Superstore, but I couldn’t find it at Save On Foods. (They had only refined couscous.)

The unit price for intact grains drops dramatically with larger package size, so if you will actually eat such a big bag, or bigger, it might be worth lugging home.

Moderately priced options include whole grain breads, some cold cereals, and whole wheat pasta.

Quinoa and farro are on the high end, but again, in terms of cost per calories, they’re still a bargain relative to other food groups. Quinoa is more affordable at Costco, in terms of unit cost, if you’ll use that much. (They used to carry farro but I couldn’t find it this week.)

As you might expect, generally the more processed and convenient products cost more, like pre-cooked, vacuum-sealed brown rice. Organic and gluten free products are also generally on the high end.

Here’s the chart, if you’re curious.

Product Package Price /100g
brown rice 1.8 kg $0.31
WW couscous (Superstore) 907 g $0.33
large flake oats 1 kg $0.35
WW bread 570 g loaf $0.38
pearl barley bulk $0.39
pot barley bulk $0.39
parboiled brown rice 4 kg (!) $0.40
steel cut oats 1.1 kg $0.50
brown basmati rice 2 kg $0.52
Multigrain whole grain bread 600 g loaf $0.72
WG cold cereal – Oatmeal Squares 500 g $0.80
WW pasta 375 g $0.88
bulgur 680 g $0.94
sprouted grain bread 615 g loaf $0.97
WG cold cereal – All-Bran 525 g $1.05
quinoa 1.36 kg $1.10
WG cold cereal – Shredded Wheat 525 g $1.10
farro (Superstore) 680 g $1.15
organic brown rice 907 g $1.27
pre-cooked, vacuum-sealed brown rice 250 g $1.32
gluten-free steel cut oats 680 g $1.47

There are lots of other whole grains, of course, but I stuck to common ones so this didn’t become a PhD project.

Again, you can look at the original spreadsheet, if you’re curious about details like which brand or cost per 100 calories. I also included some prices from a few other retailers for comparison.

Protein sources

I decided to rank this sample of protein-rich foods by cost per 20 grams of protein, which is about where most adults should be aiming in a meal. (Or a bit more, but we also get some protein from grains and even vegetables.)

I quizzed members of our Facebook group on this, and most guessed accurately that dry lentils would be on the low end, with fresh or frozen salmon on the high end.

Other winners include peanut butter, canned tuna, eggs, sunflower seeds, canned beans, and tofu. (Eggs in moderation — say up to seven a week — most people don’t need to worry about, heart healthwise.)

tuna and egg salad

Photo by Farhad Ibrahimzade on Unsplash

I didn’t include many nuts and seeds here, because I surveyed them a few years ago. It needs updating, but still gives you a sense of the relative price. Peanuts and sunflower seeds are usually the most affordable.

Otherwise, fish is at the high end. Canned fish is the budget favourite, with frozen basa being another low-cost choice. (Basa is a mild white fish with a light texture. There is some controversy around basa sustainability, although the basa at Save On Foods has the Ocean Wise certification, and Superstore’s carries the Aquaculture Stewardship Council logo, both reputable signs of sustainably sourced seafood.)

If you want to include fish or chicken in your diet while keeping a lid on the cost, you can always pair a smaller serving with an inexpensive protein source. Say salmon with a lentil and brown rice pilaf, for example. Fish tacos with black beans. Chicken with peanut sauce. Lean meat, fish, and poultry is so protein-rich, we don’t need as much as you might think.

Here’s the data:

Product Package size Cost/20g protein
lentils, red, dry 907 g $0.32
lentils, green, dry bulk $0.43
peanut butter (natural) 1 kg $0.44
canned tuna 170 g $0.69
egg (whole) 30 eggs $0.97
egg (white only) 1 kg $1.01
black beans, canned 540 mL $1.04
shelled sunflower seeds 1 kg $1.25
lentils, canned 540 mL can $1.30
tofu, firm 500 g $1.36
tofu, medium 454 g $1.44
greek yogurt (plain) 1.36 kg $1.45
cheddar cheese 500 g $1.46
chicken breasts 1.12 kg $1.56
canned salmon 418 g $1.89
basa, frozen 680 g $2.31
regular yogurt (plain) 1.75 kg $2.31
canned sardines 106 g $2.76
snapper per fillet $2.77
fresh/frozen salmon fillets 800 g $2.96
sole, fresh per fillet $3.25
scallops 300 g $4.76

Again, feel free to look at the original spreadsheet if you want to see the underlying calculations or brand names.

Protein prices really vary, so depending on your preferences and freezer space, it may be worth looking for fish, chicken, and others at Costco or other wholesale outlets. For example, chicken breasts at Costco were $1.35 per 100 grams, compared to $1.56 at Save On Foods.

Factoring cost into your sweet spot

The price of food is only one part of the “right for you” consideration, but it’s becoming more important every day with this historic inflation we’re experiencing.

Nonetheless, you might decide to pay a bit more for food that’s more nutritious, convenient, sustainable, or simply because you like it better, if you’re fortunate enough to have that option.

As always, my goal is to help you boost your know-how so you can make the best choice for you and your family.

How about you? How are you stretching your food dollar these days? Join the conversation in our (free) Facebook group.

Full disclosure

* Prices are from Save On Foods online, April 13-14, 2022, in Calgary, Canada.

As always, I have no relationship with the food industry! Just sharing what I know to help make heart-healthy eating easier for you.