Between activated almonds and goji berries, you’d be forgiven for thinking health foods are the domain of the rich. While it’s true you get what you pay for, you can also eat well and not spend a fortune on your grocery shopping. As a general rule, all fruit and vegetables are superfoods. One red capsicum (pepper) contains three times the recommended daily intake of Vitamin C (and interestingly, twice as much Vitamin C as an orange). A sweet potato boasts around 200% of your daily Vitamin A needs while you can get 5g of your daily fibre intake from a single apple. None of these foods will break your budget!
If you delve into the packaged food section, a good tip is to avoid marketing buzz words like ‘natural,’ ‘wholesome’ or ‘pure’, as the use of these words isn’t actually regulated. In Australia, a 2016 report found nearly half of 300 supermarket foods labelled “natural” were actually considered unhealthy, as they were high in saturated fat, salt and/or sugar. While the use of ‘organic’ on packaging is regulated, most brands of organic tomato sauce (ketchup), for example, still contain 20% sugar and high sodium levels.
Here’s my list of 10 affordable health foods that are easy to find and incorporate into your diet. Check out Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for my favourite places to buy in bulk for further savings!
1. rolled oats
If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I love my morning oatmeal! A 30 gram (1/3 cup or 1 oz.) serve of rolled oats contains 4 grams of protein, a type of fibre called beta-glucan which helps with cholesterol levels, and minerals like manganese which is vital for bone formation and phosphorus for basic cell function and bone support. Whether you use oats for porridge or mix them with nuts and dried fruit for a natural muesli, they’re one of the healthiest, convenient and cheapest breakfast foods you can find.
- Cost: AU $3 per kilo / US$4 for 2 lbs. (10-15 cents per serve)
- How to use: Make porridge for breakfast, roast oats in the oven for an hour with a handful of nuts and seeds for a healthy granola, make topping for a fruit crumble, add to vegetable patties instead of breadcrumbs, bake Anzac biscuits or oatmeal raisin cookies.
2. Flaxseed (linseed)
I’m still amazed how affordable flaxseeds are. Also known as linseed, these tiny seeds are plain tasting and ordinary looking but they pack a nutritional punch. One tablespoon of ground flaxseed (flaxmeal) is just 30 calories and contains 1.5g protein, 2g fibre (you need 25g-30g a day) and more than your daily needs of omega-3 fatty acids. Increasing your omega-3 intake is thought to have a significant benefit in preventing cardiovascular disease. I buy my flaxseed whole and grind them in my Vitamix, as it’s fresher and cheaper than buying pre-ground flaxmeal.
- Cost: AU$4 per kilo / US$3 for 16 oz. (about 2c per 1tbsp serve!)
- How to use: Add a tablespoon of ground flaxseed to oatmeal or smoothies, use as an egg replacement in cakes or muffins by mixing 1tbsp flaxmeal with 3 tbsp water for each egg, or add flaxseed and/or flaxmeal to bread or other baked goods for a nutrition boost.
3. Sunflower seeds
When I was a student, there was no way I could afford $15 for a bag of almonds. Peanuts and sunflowers seeds were my trail mix of choice mixed with raisins or dried apricots. A 28g (1 oz. or 1/4 cup) serve of hulled sunflower seeds contains around 8g protein, 4g fibre, 45% of your daily Vitamin E needs and 25% of your magnesium intake. Even just one tablespoon will give you 2-3g of protein and 1.3g of fibre for just 60 calories. Watch out for the salted varieties!
- Cost: AU$4 for 500g/ US$2.50 for 16 oz. (20 – 30c per serve)
- How to use: Scatter a tablespoon on top of your breakfast cereal or yogurt, roast a cup of seeds in the oven with a little oil and your favourite spices for a savoury snack or salad topping, add 1/4 cup to muffins or banana bread for annutrition crunch, or blend in a high quality blender to make your own seed butter.
Legumes in general are inexpensive and readily available in canned or dried forms. Also known as “pulses,” they’re packed with fibre, protein, B vitamins and minerals like iron and copper. Lentils are one of my favourite legumes for their versatility and quick cooking time of around 20 minutes. You’ll commonly find brown lentils in cans, while red lentils are usually sold dry and break down when cooked. Slightly more expensive are French lentils (also called puy lentils) which hold their shape when cooked, making them ideal for salads. A typical 50g (1/4 cup) serve of dry lentils contains around 170 calories, 11g protein and 5g fibre plus a whopping 20% of your daily iron intake.
- Cost: AU$4 per kilo / US$4 for 2lb. (approx. 20c a serve)
- How to use: Make Indian dal by simmering 1 cup of dry red lentils with 3-4 cups of water and curry powder, or cook lentils with chopped vegetables and stock for a hearty soup. If you don’t like Indian flavours or soup, make lentil burgers! Alternatively, cook French puy lentils and add to salads or serve hot with creamy polenta and wilted greens.
I hated raw carrots as a kid and still disliked them as a young adult. But as a university student, their affordability and durability made them taste a whole lot better! I started eating raw carrots with hummus as an alternative to crackers and at the time, I didn’t appreciate what a powerhouse they were. One carrot contains about 170% of your daily Vitamin A needs and 3g of fibre, plus it’s only around 30-40 calories. Again, I love the versatility of carrots and use them in everything from curries and soups, to salads and sweet dishes like muffins or carrot cake (they pair perfectly with walnuts and cinnamon).
- Cost: AU$1-2 for 1kg bag / US$1.50 for 2lb (about 10-15c per carrot!)
- How to use: eat raw carrot sticks with hummus or salsa, make a healthy carrot soup, or grate carrot and red cabbage for a “naked” coleslaw. This mix keeps for days and you can use it in Vietnamese rice paper rolls, throw it in a stir fry or enjoy with satay sauce and lime as a zesty side salad.
6. Canned tomatoes
While I try to buy fresh vegetables whenever possible, there are a few items I make an exception for. I love frozen peas, marinated artichokes, polski ogorki (Polish dill pickles) and… canned tomatoes. Tomatoes are high in lycopene, which has an antioxidant effect. Studies suggest eating foods with lycopene can help reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. An average 400g (14 oz.) can of diced tomatoes has around 60% of your daily Vitamin C needs, 25% of your Vitamin A needs and 6g of fibre (and only around 80 calories). Just make sure there’s no added salt. Best of all, a can of tomatoes will keep in your cupboard for years!
- Cost: AU/US$1 per 400g/14oz. can (25c – $1 per serve)
- How to use: Simmer with sautéed onion and garlic for an easy homemade pasta sauce, do the same but add paprika, cumin and coriander for a Mexican enchilada sauce or taco filling (with protein), simmer two cans with assorted vegetables for a chunky minestrone soup, or go Middle Eastern with a Moroccan tajine (stew) or shakshuka (eggs in tomato sauce).
For those who don’t follow a vegan diet or don’t have allergies, eggs are an affordable powerhouse of protein and nutrients. One egg contains 6g protein along with Vitamins B2, B12 and Vitamin D plus about 25-30% of your recommended daily intake of selenium and folate. Vitamin D helps protect bones while selenium is an antioxidant and vital for a proper functioning immune system. Eggs are also widely available in supermarkets, at cafes and of course, served by airlines every time they want you to think it’s “breakfast time!”
- Cost: AU$4 per dozen / US$2-3 a dozen (about 50-60c per 2-egg serve)
- How to use: Beyond poaching, frying and scrambling, use eggs to make a vegetable-packed quiche, enjoy boiled eggs as a portable snack or mash them with a pinch of curry powder for a protein-rich sandwich filling.
8. Fresh herbs
There’s something about fresh herbs that’s both delicious and detoxifying. My favourites are parsley, mint, basil and (the often controversial) coriander. I add fresh herbs as often as I can my meals. They’re rich in antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties, and studies suggest they may help protect against cancer. As an example, a 1/4 cup of chopped parsley contains one-quarter of your daily Vitamin A needs, one-third of your Vitamin C needs and 5% of your daily iron intake. Fresh herbs elevate any dish you’re preparing and reduce the chance of unnecessarily adding salt or fat for flavour. My boyfriend and I struggle to keep our herb garden alive (even with automated watering) but we replant it a few times a year. It’s worth it!
- Cost: A few dollars for a small herb plant from a nursery or gardening centre.
- How to use: Make a parsley-packed tabbouleh, try a mint and pea soup, add generous amounts of coriander and lime juice to zucchini noodles for a raw pad thai, or blend two handfuls of fresh herbs with olive oil and lemon juice for a delicious homemade pesto. I love adding herbs to smoothies too – try pairing strawberries and mint, or parsley and kiwi fruit.
I’m a chocoholic, but deep down I think I’m just hooked on cocoa. I’ll drink it hot, add it to smoothies, munch on cocoa nibs and make any dessert chocolate flavour. Most cocoa sold in supermarkets is “Dutch-processed,” or treated with alkali for a milder flavour (if so, you’ll see it in the ingredient list). Natural cocoa will simply say “cocoa” or “unsweetened cocoa powder” under ingredients. The least processed (and usually only found in health food stores) is “raw cocoa,” which is like the cold-pressed juice equivalent of cocoa.
What should you buy? It’s up to you, your tastebuds and your wallet – but don’t be dissuaded by commercial brands. One tablespoon of Hershey’s cocoa contains 10% of your daily iron needs and 2g of fibre, but less processed varieties will have more antioxidants. Just be sure to avoid “drinking chocolate” – that’s code for cocoa mixed with sugar, milk powder or solids and possibly marshmallows.
- Cost: AU$5 for 250g / US $3 for 8 oz. (15c per 1 tbsp serve)
- How to use: Make a healthy hot chocolate, add a spoonful to a banana or berry smoothie, stir cocoa through 1 cup of coconut water and 2tbsp of chia seeds for a healthy chocolate pudding (you’ll have to wait a few hours though!).
10. Dark chocolate
You may be thinking chocolate isn’t a superfood or that good quality brands are too pricey. But dark chocolate, with a cocoa content of 85% or above, is a great source of iron and antioxidants. Most brands of 70% cocoa and above are also lactose and dairy-free, so suitable for vegans too. Unlike traditional chocolate bars, it’s hard to overindulge on dark chocolate because of its richness (although I need a lot of willpower to only eat two squares). If dark chocolate isn’t your thing, try starting with a 60% cocoa bar and working your way up. My favourite is Lindt’s 90% variety and I have a square every night with a cup of white tea. Two 10g squares of dark chocolates contains 120 calories and 7% of your daily iron intake.
- Cost: AU/US$3-4 for a 100g block (or just 30 cents per square).
- How to use: As if I have to tell you how to eat chocolate!
- Everything on this page is vegetarian, and everything is vegan except for eggs. This list is entirely gluten-free too, except for rolled oats (although certified gluten-free brands exist).
- All prices are based on my best knowledge and research of major Australian and American supermarkets. If there’s a bargain superfood in your country (or something I’ve missed!), please share in the comments below.
- Check out Perth’s Top Health Food Stores for my favourite places to buy in bulk. They’re usually much cheaper than major supermarkets and some deliver interstate too!
- Please remember I’m a journalist, not a nutritionist. I check my sources and I regularly shop on a budget – but don’t make drastic diet changes without seeing a professional. However, I guarantee lentils won’t kill you and you’ll grow to love 90% dark chocolate eventually!
QUESTION: What’s your favourite budget health food?