Apart from air pollution, the hottest topic on my blog is always food safety in China. Newspapers cover the topic daily with the latest scandal, or a repeat of old scandals, and it’s a legitimate question to wonder what is safe to eat. As a doctor and a five-year veteran expat in Beijing, I’d like to share my tips.
Dairy Products: The most disgusting food safety scandal, by far, involved the contaminated infant formula in 2008 that killed six children and sickened 300,000 others, most with kidney disease. Unfortunately, since then, melamine has been discovered in a few dairy products, and thus all of China remains justifiably wary of the entire dairy industry.
If you have a newborn baby, the healthiest milk in any country is breast milk, so breastfeed exclusively for as long as possible. Otherwise, most doctors here would recommend buying only imported infant formulas from the most reputable brands, as well as from the most famous stores.
As for regular milk products, trust is key. A good choice for milk and yogurt is American-owned Wondermilk, as well as local organic milk or imported boxes of milk. Another option is soy milk, which can be made at home.
Fruits and Vegetables: Again, the main issue is trust. Do you know exactly where this green veggie is from and how it was made? If it’s from one of the handful of organic farms around Beijing and you’re comfortable with the farm’s practices, then that’s great. For most of us, this is an impractical or expensive option, so I prefer buying organic meat, fruits and vegetables as often as possible from large internationally-run hypermarkets, such as Carrefour, Metro, Walmart, Tesco and Auchan. I prefer organic not only for taste and quality, but also for their good chain of production, traceability, and oversight by multiple governmental and organic agencies. And make no mistake, you should be wary of getting produce from small farms in China, where pesticide, growth hormone and other chemical rates are enormous.
No matter where you buy your produce, it is crucial to wash them well, especially leafy greens. If your ayi prepares your foods, it’s important to educate her on proper food washing and simple hygiene, such as correct hand washing or not mixing raw meats and veggies on the same cutting tables. World Health Organization food safety handouts in Chinese and English can be found online at ww.myhealthbeijing.com/2009/09/five-keys-to-safer-food.
Fish: A diet rich in fish is beneficial at all ages, because nutritious omega 3 is a crucial element for a child’s brain as well as for an adult’s heart. But finding any safe fish in China is a serious issue, as many local rivers and waterways are seriously polluted. I recently discovered Metro’s frozen food section, which has a large selection of fish from other countries, with reasonable quality and prices.
To sum it all up, with a little extra knowledge and precautions, your meals can be as healthy as those from your home country.
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Dr. Richard Saint Cyr is a family doctor at Beijing United Family Hospital, and the Director of Clinical Marketing and Communications. He runs the blog www.myhealthbeijing.com.