For both new arrivals and old China hands alike, maintaining good nutrition while in China is always a topic on the minds of expatriates and their families.
As a specialist health insurance broker with our own sizeable team of expatriates, we at One World Cover understand a healthy diet not only makes for a happier life but can also help to significantly reduce the frequency of higher medical claims, which in turn may serve to reduce the overall premium of your international medical insurance plan. With this in mind we recently sat down for a talk with Margaret Keefe about the challenges that expats and expat families in China face on nutrition for themselves and their children.
Margaret is a registered dietician and nutritional consultant in Shanghai as well as the chief representative at Eat Well Shanghai, an organization that advises expats and families on how to maintain a safe, healthy and enjoyable diet whilst in Shanghai. The second edition of Eat Well Shanghai: Your Guide to Eating Well at Home and on the Go will be available this May. Whilst her work primarily focuses on Shanghai, her advice can be applied to any city in China.
OWC: For expat families just arriving, what is essential for them to know about food in China?
Margaret: Everything for a healthy diet is available in Shanghai. Sometimes when people are new to China they tend to eat things that look familiar, possibly because it makes them more comfortable to be eating something from close to home, or maybe it feels safer. Especially with children, parents may want to give them the packaged cookies as opposed to looking for something healthier but maybe less familiar.
OWC: What’s your opinion on fresh foods from the local supermarkets?
Margaret: Fruits and vegetables you can always wash, and you should be able to remove most or all of any harmful bacteria that may be on them. Meat and dairy, however, are a different story. For beef I usually buy Australian beef, and there are several places in town that offer high quality organic meat. However, people don’t usually have time to get to know the markets they’re buying from and where they source their meat. So realistically we recommend buying from a variety of sources and not always buying from the same places.
OWC: How about dairy?
Margaret: The meat and dairy industries in China are still relatively new, and the industry standards are not the same as most Western countries. There are a few dairies in China with a very good reputation like Ambrosia or Asahi, but you have to be careful with the local milks. I would recommend going with the international boxed milks, because you know that there will be no bacteria. Some of them are also going to be fortified with vitamins A and D. Eggs should be fine.
OWC: There are also many different open markets around Shanghai that sell fresh seafood; would you recommend expats going for these options? Would you consider them safe to eat?
Margaret: I don’t recommend buying from a corner wet market. However, there is a large seafood/fish market on Tongchuan Lu that lots of expats use. I haven’t heard of any negative reports from that. I would tell people to observe how the fish/seafood is held (i.e. Is it sitting on ice?). If it is a live fish, is it swimming and is the water it is being held in clear and running? That gives you a better chance that the fish is fresh.
OWC: We have talked about buying from a variety of sources, and trying to get to know your supplier and where their products come from. For people who are busy and may not have the time and money to invest in this, are there any resources you can recommend that can help busy people without a lot of free time find healthy choices?
Margaret: Order from an online grocer. They deliver. Buy Eat Well Shanghai: Your Guide to Eating Well at Home and on the Go. It has plenty of listings. Go to Carrefour. They have reasonable fruits and vegetables. If you are invested in your health, you will take some time to check out the resources.
OWC: When eating at restaurants in China, what are some things people should watch out for, or is there anything they should avoid?
Margaret: People should watch for the same things they would in their home country: Are the tables clean? Do the servers look clean? Are they wiping the tables with incredibly dirty clothes? Many restaurants now have sanitary ratings by the Shanghai government posted in plain site. Take a peek at those. A good indicator is busy restaurants. People don’t go back to places they get sick at. Plus you know the food is turning very fast.
OWC: What should expat families pay attention to regarding their children?
Margaret: You should assume that cereals and milks in China will not be fortified with vitamins, so they won’t be getting the same amount of nutrients with these products as they are used to in the West. We recommend that you supplement this by giving your child a daily multi-vitamin. This will actually also help their bodies combat some of the negative effects that come from air pollution in many Chinese cities.
OWC: If you are going to eat processed food, are there any specific brands that you would recommend that have good reputations in China?
Margaret: If you mean things like snack food, look for brands from Taiwan.
OWC: Are there any foods that you can find here in China that you may not be able to get back in the West?
Margaret: Sure, probably lots of them. Certain perishable fruits like mangosteens, lychees, and longan fruit are all are pretty rare in the Western world. Also, the wide variety of tofu. Many of the Korean/Chinese noodles as well.
Whilst you may need to put a little extra effort into finding certain healthy options, they’re certainly out there. Also, don’t be afraid to venture away from eating only those things you recognize from home. You never know; fresh dragon fruit or even steamed Chinese cabbage could become the kids’ new favorites.