Friday, December 16, 2016

What to look for when shopping at the grocery store!

As a self proclaimed foodie, with a bit of training, I've been cooking and shopping on my own since I was in the fourth grade. The neighborhood grocery store (Weingarten's) was literally across the street from our first residence in Houston. Being the oldest of 3 children, my mother often had her hands full with my two younger sisters so I would volunteer to walk over and pick up the essentials when there just weren't enough hours in the day for mom to get everything done. I dutifully followed instructions which included details on how to pick fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, and occasionally I came back with some ice cream or some other treat that wasn't actually on the shopping list. 

Today I consider myself a relatively savvy shopper and I do a lot of cooking and baking. I am constantly surprised by the choices people make at the market. I know this might sound silly to some readers, but I see people on the produce aisle walk up and toss the first box of berries they encounter into their cart without the least bit of inspection. I recently felt obliged to let a woman know that the raspberries she cheerfully placed in to her cart were already moldy. Upon inspection, she thanked me and put them back. I of course felt obliged to also inform store management. 

Whether you are just going out on your own for the first time in the world or have been at the shopping game for a while now, it is helpful to keep a few key thoughts in mind when shopping for fruits and vegetables. Pick up apples, pears, oranges, grapefruits, bananas, mangos, etc. and make sure they are not bruised or blemished. Look for soft spots, as they are a precursor to ugly bruises. Citrus should be heavy for its size and not have a white haze on the surface. The skins should be nice, bright, and not discolored. If you buy a whole pineapple, pick it up and smell it, if it doesn't smell of pineapple, it is not ripe, make sure the leaves are not dried out. Strawberries should smell like strawberries! Try to learn what produce is seasonal and not grown half way around the world and imported. Seasonal, local grown produce is always best. 

As for vegetables, think as you choose what you'll be eating or feeding your family. Look for the freshest leafy greens, tomatoes (I'm aware they are technically a fruit) should be relatively firm, free of bruises and actually of a nice red color. Cucumbers, all types of squash, and even eggplant should be firm, heavy for their size and blemish free. Stalks of celery should be bright green, firm and fresh. Mushrooms should be firm with a fresh smooth appearance  the surface should be dry and appear plump and the freshest mushrooms will still have a closed veil covering their gills. Onions, shallots and garlic should also be heavy for their size, not discolored and have tight fresh looking outer skins. Be careful to peel back the first layer or two of leaves when picking cabbage, making sure the head has not been damaged in shipping. Carrots usually come in bags, as do many types of lettuce, mushrooms, cut up fruit, along with other produce. Check packaging, sell by, and expiration dates. The longer the date, the longer the food will stay good in your refrigerator and the less food will eventually go to waste. 

It is astonishing how much food goes to waste in the United States. According to an article in the Huffington post that cites the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Americans waste or throw away nearly half their food. According to the 2012 report a family of four throws away an average of $2,275.00 worth of food a year. 

What prompted be to make this entry were recent observations in the grocery store. I thought surely people must know better. But then I ran across the following article on The Food Network's web site on how to pick the freshest meat and seafood. The article goes into detail about how to choose the freshest beef, poultry, lamb, pork, fish, shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters. It is a great read for anyone that shops for food. So I came to the conclusion that this information some folks could really benefit from knowing. 

Then of course there is the relatively new (in our country) focus on organic foods, produce, grass fed beef, free range chicken, etc. I lived London in the late 1990's and I was quickly educated on terms I never really took seriously before such as organic, GMO, growth hormones, antibiotics and how they relate to our food supply. Concerns about genetically modified foods and pesticides made it to the forefront in the UK and Europe long before the average American became informed. 

Earlier this year I posted an article focusing on which foods are best to buy organic. I think this is a good time to revisit this helpful information from Dr. Andrew Weil M.D. and the Environmental Working Group. 
Dr. Andrew Weil M.D.
I have been following U.S. trained physician, author, holistic health and integrative medicine specialist and all around health "guru" Dr. Andrew Weill for some time.

Dr. Andrew Weil has an ongoing partnership with the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies that protect global and individual health. Together they are spreading the word on one of EWG’s most valuable pieces of research - a Shoppers' Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The list is based on the results of pesticide tests performed on produce and collected by federal agencies over 9 years. 

Nearly all of the data used took into account how people typically wash and prepare produce - for example, apples were washed and bananas peeled before testing. 

The Clean 15 - Foods You Don't Have to Buy Organic
Of the fruit and vegetable categories tested, the following "Clean 15" foods had the lowest pesticide load, and consequently are the safest conventionally grown crops to consume from the standpoint of pesticide contamination:

                Sweet corn
                Sweet peas (frozen)
                Cantaloupe (domestic)
                Sweet potatoes

Why should you care about pesticides? The EWG points out that there is a growing consensus in the scientific community that small doses of pesticides and other chemicals can have adverse effects on health, especially during vulnerable periods such as fetal development and childhood. 

Dr. Weil maintains that pesticides are toxins and that they cannot be good for you. But the big question is how bad are they? They can be toxic to the nervous system, disrupt endocrine functions, and may increase risks of Cancer and other chronic diseases. So we should all be trying to take action to minimize our exposure to pesticides. According to Dr. Weil data supports that people who eat organic foods, find that measurable pesticide levels in their (body) tissues drop. 

Dirty Dozen Plus - Foods You Should Always Buy Organic
At the opposite end of the contamination spectrum we have the "Dirty Dozen Plus". These foods had the highest pesticide load, making them the most important to buy organic - or to grow organically yourself:

                Sweet bell peppers
                Nectarines (although Dr. Weil specifies imported)
                Cherry tomatoes
                Snap peas (imported)

Plus these which may contain organophosphate insecticides, which EWG characterizes as "highly toxic" and of special concern:
                Hot peppers
                Kale and Collard Greens
                Blueberries (Dr. Weil adds domestic blueberries to round out his list)

So how realistic is it that all people will or can afford to eat organic? There is a way to start moving in the right direction without breaking the bank. 

According to Dr. Weil, if you simply shift to eating foods on the clean 15 list, (these are foods you can buy conventional versions of), you will have a measureable drop in tissue accumulations of pesticides. 

Keep in mind that maintaining your family's health is not the only reason to choose organic food. Even though we can peel some foods such as mangoes, avocadoes and bananas, making them safe for consumption, pesticide and herbicide use contaminates groundwater, ruins soil structures and promotes erosion. They can also cause damage to local ecosystems and may be a contributor to what is called  "colony collapse disorder," the sudden and mysterious die-off of pollinating honeybees that threatens the American food supply.

To help promote the health of the planet as well as your own health, it's best to buy organic whenever possible, including when you are purchasing all produce. 

Here is a very useful tool when trying to sort out which foods are best to integrate into your diet, and which to omit. The EWG's food Scores Calculator is a huge database of thousands of food items and ingredients.  You can find the EWG Food Scores Calculator at where you can even download an app for your mobile device.