How To Shop for Ingredients
Fruit and Vegetables
When it comes to good nutrition, the forms that the fruits and vegetables are in matter the most. The different forms are fresh, frozen, canned, dried or in 100% juice.
Fresh & Whole
Fresh and whole form of fruits and vegetable are by far the most superior in terms of nutritional values. When fresh produce are not available, frozen form comes next in preference and lastly is the dried form.
Canned vegetables are mostly pre-cooked and come with plenty of additives, artificial coloring, chemical flavoring and preservatives. The chemical lining used on tin can to prevent it from rusting has been found to interfere with natural hormonal functions. We should avoid canned foods as much as possible. Juice is not a preferred choice either because it is lacking the natural fiber that we need the most for digestive health. High concentration of fruit juice is too high in fructose which is found to cause diabetes.
As nature intended, we should buy our produce in whole, preferably locally grown because they have the shortest time to travel from field to table which is crucial in delivering the most nutrients that they can offer.
Natural and non-GMO produce and are organically grown are obviously the best choice for our health. But when they are not available or affordable, we should focus on freshness and whatever is in season. When fruits and vegetables are in season, they are in abundant supply and are in the best form to deliver the nutrients that our body needs for the season. When there is abundant supply, the price will be at its lowest.
When choosing fresh produce, look for those that do not come in exactly the same size and color in the same lot and with some showing signs of insect bites or decay because those are signs that they are not GMO produce and with less chemical insecticides. Remember if the insects do not want to eat them, you do not want to eat them either.
Select a rainbow color of produce because each color has its unique nutritional contents. Try as much as you can to incorporate at least 5 colors of fruits and vegetables per day.
It is important to know about what the industry called the dirty dozen produce - the top 12 foods that are high in chemicals and pesticide residue. The Environmental Working Group’s annual list of the dirty dozen is developed based on data provided by the Department of Agriculture. The group believes that we can reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals by 80% if we switch to organic when buying the dirty dozen foods.
Those that made into the recent list include (in order of most residue to least): peaches, apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, kale, lettuce, imported grapes, carrots, and pears. In general, tree fruits, berries, leafy greens dominate the list. Fruits and vegetables with thick skins that are removed before eating (melons, avocado, corn, etc.) tend to have the lowest amounts of pesticide residue.
The fruits and vegetables with the least pesticide residue are (in order of least residue to most): onions, avocados, sweet corn, pineapples, mangoes, asparagus, sweet peas, kiwifruits, cabbages, eggplants, papayas, watermelons, broccoli, tomatoes, and sweet potatoes. Oranges and tangerines, staples of midwinter, fall midway on the list of the 47 fruits and vegetables tested.
Things to consider when buying meat are their wholesomeness, quality, nutritional value, cost, the amount of meat that can be stored in the freezer, the amount of raw meat that can be used within a few days of purchase, the recipe that you are going to make and the kinds of cuts and quality preferred.
Government inspected meats are deemed to be safe but in today’s commercial meat farming, mass produced meats are not as healthy as they should be. Cheap animal feeds, crowded and inhumane breeding conditions, over use of growth hormone and anti-biotic are turning meat into high risk foods. It is common to find chemicals or drugs taken by the animals ended up in human consuming the meat. There are enough evidences showing that meat is one of the main causes contributing to today’s health problems such as heart disease, cancer and obesity.
When comes to eating meat, choosing quality over quantity is the smartest option. Shop for the best quality your budget can afford. Organically raised animals from local farm, free-run and with natural feeds are the best, particularly for chicken because most people are eating a lot of them and they are known to be the worst culprit.
Besides the wholesomeness of meat, its quality grade, tenderness, juiciness, and flavor highly determine their price. Some cuts of meat from the less-used muscles along the back of the animal – the rib and loin sections - will always be tenderer than those from the more active muscles such as the shoulder, flank, and leg. Since the more tender cuts make up only a small proportion of the whole animal and they are in higher demand, they usually command a much higher price. You can save a lot by using the less tender cut and use them in recipes with longer cooking time such as stew or soup.
We should avoid readymade ground beef and manufactured meat such as sausages because they are made from lower grades utility meat and are full of fat. They also have higher chance of being crossed contaminated because they are being prepared in bulk. It is much safer to grind your own or ask your butcher to grind a chosen piece of meat for you.
When choosing meat, they should have a rich pink color, bones should be bright white and fat should be evenly distributed throughout the cut. Avoid deep purple or dark brown colors, which mean the meat is on the verge of going bad or comes from an older animal which can be tough and with less flavors. Other less-than-fresh signs are dark bones and yellowed fat.
If you buy a bigger piece of meat to save on price, make sure you cut them into meal size portions and individually wrap each piece with thick waxed paper and put it in thick plastic bag to prevent freezer burn. Once meat is defrosted, make sure you will use all of it. Repeated freezing and thawing meat can cause spoilage and the meat will lose a lot of its flavors.
Chinese herbs are the main ingredients in many of our therapeutic cooking recipes. Like any other food ingredients, the higher the quality, the more health benefits they can offer. Since most fresh herbs are hard to come by outside China, the dried form is what is commonly used. However, there are more and more fresh herbal ingredients found in Chinese grocery stores such as Chinese yam, American ginseng, lily bulb, lotus seed and burdock, etc. Using fresh herbs in stir-fries, soups and desserts makes the most delicious recipes.
Dried herbs are commonly available in tradition herbal shops, TCM doctor’s office and most Chinese grocery stores. When shopping for herbs, the quantities you need usually determine where you should go to get them. If you are just trying some recipes initially and do not want to buy in bulk, you have to go to herbal shops or TCM doctor’s shop to get the exact amount that you want. But when buying in small quantities, they usually will cost more. TCM doctors usually carry higher quality herbs for better potency and they are more pricy. In general, herbs with bigger size are better in quality and are more expensive. When choosing a TCM shop, find one with higher turnover which means their herbs are fresher and more potent.
Fresher herbs are not too dark in color; they are intact and not fragmented and they smell stronger.
When buying herbs in bulk for price or for quantity, go to the bulk herbal shops where they sell most herbs by bags of at least one pound each. Usually they have a selection of different grades for you to choose from. If you are buying herbs to make herbal soups or tea, you will be using more quantity than what a normal herbal formula will call for. If price is a concern, you don’t have to go for the top grade. The average one will be good enough.
After bringing herbs home, just make sure that they are kept in dry places. It is best to store herbs in tightly sealed glass bottles. For expensive herbs, you would want to store them in the fridge to prevent them from molding or spoiling.
Herb Buying Tips
If you're going to buy dried herbs, buy them in the smallest quantity you can. Herbs don't really ever go bad, but they do start to lose their strength after about six months. So try not to buy herbs and spices in quantities that are more than you can use in that time period.
Herbs will keep longer if stored in a cool, dry, dark place in tins or dark-colored glass containers.
If at all possible, buy herbs from a place where you can smell the herbs. Then you will know if the herbs are fresh, because they will smell the way they are supposed to smell. This is why it pays to go to a herbal shop or a natural foods market with bulk herbs and spices. You can smell things, ask questions and pick out just the best you like to pay for.