Tips & Techniques

6 Ingredients That Are Cheaper in the Bulk Aisle—and a Surprising One That Isn’t

August  3, 2018

There are a lot of smarty-pants reasons to buy ingredients in the bulk aisle. It reduces packaging waste (“Thank you!” says Earth). You can buy exactly as much as you want (one slice of dried mango? Sure!). And it saves you money.

Or does it?

I’ve always assumed that all bulk bin ingredients are cheaper—like, a lot cheaper—but never nitpicked the price tags. (For shame, for shame.) So this week, I went to Whole Foods, around the corner from our office, and did just that.

Good news: Lots of ingredients were, indeed, less expensive. Bad news: One notable one was not. But let’s start with the good, shall we?


buy these in bulk

Oats

I eat a loooooot of oats, so saving anything adds up quickly. An 18-ounce package of organic rolled oats costs $2.66/pound. In the bulk bin, it’s $1.39/pound. And organic steel-cut oats are even better. On the shelf, 24 ounces will cost you $2.66/pound. In the bulk bin, that drops to $1.29/pound.

Coffee Beans

I compared the per pound prices of two Allegro coffee blends: the 12-ounce bags on the shelf and those barrels so big you sort of want to jump right in (just me?). Both the Early Bird and Breakfast Blend were $15.99/pound on the shelf and $11.99/pound in bulk. Not too shabby, eh?

Chia Seeds

This is going to come in handy for your next chia pudding phase. In the bulk bin, chia seeds are $7.99/pound. In an 8-ounce bag, they’re $17.98/pound—over twice as much.

Lentils

Anything cuter than a lentil? Nope. This lil' legume is cost-effective, quick-cooking, and filling. (It's also a great stand-in for meat!) A 22-ounce bag of red lentils costs $4.36/pound. Meanwhile, in the bulk bin, that number drops to $2.29/pound. Picture a big sign that says: "(Almost) Half Off! Yippee!"

Dried Beans

We’re about to get real thrifty—ready? Already inexpensive canned beans are more expensive than dried ones. And bagged dried ones are more expensive than bulk ones. So basically, bulk dried beans should win you a money-saving award (imagine if it was a cash prize!). If your bulk aisle is worth its salt, it will have a variety of dried beans. At this store, kidney beans were $2.79/pound in bulk and $2.99 on the shelf for 1 pound. Black beans were the same shelf price and $1.99/pound in bulk.

Dried Fruit—Sort of

Raisins are a curious bunch. No matter what, the organic Thompson variety is cheaper in the bulk bin at $4.19/pound. But buy a 15-ounce box and they’re $4.26/pound. Buy an 8-ounce bag and they’re $7.98/pound. That’s the same price for a bag of pitted dates or prunes. In bulk, the dates are $5.99/pound (almost $2/pound savings), but the prunes are $8.99/pound (even more expensive). So, some fruit will save you, and some won’t. Which leads us to our next category...


shop with caution

Nuts

Surprise! Nuts aren’t cheaper in the bulk aisle. Whole almonds are $10.99/pound in bulk and $6.99 for a 1-pound bag. Walnut halves and pieces are $8.99 in bulk and $6.99 for a 1-pound bag. And whole cashews are the same price in both places. Which is to say, the bulk aisle is great and all, but before you go nuts, double check those prices.

Shop the Story

What bulk bin item do you swear by? Tell us in the comments!

10 Comments

Marcie August 26, 2018
Whole Foods acquired its moniker "Whole Paycheck" for a reason. It's misleading to assume that it's the only source of healthy foods. <br />Where I live there's a huge local produce market, Monterey Market; and an entire supermarket, Berkeley Bowl, with prices way below While Foods. Far better selection of unprocessed foods as well. There is also a local health food store chain, El Cerrito Natural Grocery, with comparable prices. Oddly local farmers' markets are charming and very expensive. <br />I only go to Whole Foods for a better variety of gluten free treats. Please don't just use Whole Foods as the only source, encourage people to see if they have local businesses for healthy food too.
 
susan G. August 8, 2018
I am committed to buying bulk, for the above reasons (and more). What I don't want to buy in bulk is whole grain flours. Because they are ground, the oils in the precious germ is exposed to air, oxidizing and deteriorating. Also they are more likely to suffer from human intervention. <br />Dried fruit? Look around: is someone putting hands in for 'quality control testing'? I'm not terribly comfortable with that either. Grains and beans, some nuts and spices, yes, yes and yes. Ideally, nuts, seeds and flours should be refrigerated. As a retired natural foods retailer, we put in a refrigerated room for the more sensitive bulk, but unfortunately, many customers were put off by having to brave refrigerator temperature, in spite of the quality benefits.
 
lpenney14 August 4, 2018
I agree with the comments regarding variable quality, but I've found different sources that provide reliably good quality and I appreciate being able to buy in the quantities I need and can use before quality diminishes (e.g. spices). <br /><br />Regarding bulk nuts - we have Sprouts here and their bulk nuts are probably comparable to packaged nuts. BUT their nuts on sale (weekly) are outrageously cheap. For example, I think last week their almonds were $3.99/lb and this week walnuts are $4.99. Any nut probably is on sale at least once every 2 months, so I buy them up then and store in my freezer.
 
NS August 3, 2018
I've often found specialty beans - like Orca, or Christmas Lima - only available in bulk bins, depending on store. Specific flours are often cheaper in bulk: whole wheat pastry flour, organic whole wheat flour and whole rye flour.
 
M August 3, 2018
What I buy in bulk is directly related to its importance. Small bits for one-off recipes are great. Snacks are great, because they're not ingredients that can throw a project off. The rest I approach with skepticism, especially after the period where I bought flour and such in various bulk stores and the quality of my baked goods went down the tubes. Whatever the culprit -- how it's stored, handled, mishandled by customers, etc -- many bulk goods aren't that great.<br /><br />Also, be sure to store bulk goods in sealed containers. The lack of a seal in-store is just asking for infestations of critters like meal moths. A couple infested bulk purchases once wiped hundreds of dollars of goods in my pantry. <br /><br />I hope that one day bulk sellers will operate like old-school pharmacies -- properly stored and cared for products are measured out for customers by professionals not mucking anything up!
 
Marsha F. August 3, 2018
I’m a big believer in buying spices in bulk. They are fresher as well as cheaper. For me a packaged jar of bay leaves is a lifetime supply, but I can get one or 2 for less than 20 cents for that soup recipe I pull out once a year.
 
221baker August 3, 2018
How does rice compare?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 3, 2018
Hi! Rice seems to really depend on the variety, but most large bags were comparable with the bulk prices.
 
judy August 3, 2018
First of all, shopping Whole Foods is not shopping smarter. It is expensive, even with Amazon take-over. I shop at WinCo foods here in the Pacific North West, and yes, bulk items are cheaper. Unfortunately, they are not always of better quality. No matter where one buy's them. We have several nicer options than Whole Foods in our general vicinity, but still bulk can be very expensive, unless you just want a very little bit of a specialty item that is used very rarely.then the extra expense is definite a savings, as, as the author states, one can buy as little or as much as one wants. Been shopping bulk foods all over the US since the early 70's. I do find that herbs are not nearly as nice as those Buy from speicalty herb vendors on line, though. They are then more expensive overall as I have to use 3-5x as much for the same flavor punch, and even then that is not always the case. Granulated garlic is a case in point. Never as good from the bulk isle ANYWHERE as from Nuts.com, for example. Which beats out Penzey's, by the way both in flavor and price.
 
Nancy August 3, 2018
Agree...similar experience in or with several cities, stores, on line vendors.