How To Select The Best Raw Foods
When we first start changing our shopping habits, depending on our background, it can take quite a while to become proficient in knowing how to select ripe and optimally fresh and live raw produce.
With this in mind, this week's article is about how to fast-track your raw food shopping skills to pick the best no matter where you are. Knowing how to do this can save lots of time, money and disappointment, because you'll feel confident that every choice you make will be the right one!
How To Select The Best Fresh Produce
SIGHT - Generally we can tell just by looking at a food if it is good or not, but things like chemicals we cannot see with our bare eyes. What we can see though, is:
Colour - As a general rule of thumb, the brighter and/or deeper the colour the more nutrient-dense and ripe that food is.
Size - Bigger doesn't always mean better, but with tropical fruits it often does (- but these are generally only found in their native countries.) Small tomatoes often taste better than the big ones, much sweeter and tastier, berries too, but if a fruit is unnaturally small for its kind then that may mean it's inferior or on its way out. So this is a case-by-case scenario - you'll learn more about this as you go along, although much will be common sense.
Shape - Truly good organic food is often irregular in shape but these foods often don't make the shelves for this reason. They are not "perfect" looking enough and so therefore don't make the grade. Visit any good organic farm shop and you'll see lumps and bumps and other irregularities, but my goodness you'll know that looks don't matter when you taste them and feel how much more real they are in every sense of the word!
Life! - Sometimes you can just see that produce is looking healthier or more alive than others. Think limp lettuce versus perky pepper!
Other visual signs - Food does actually speak to us via its own language. Yes really! Think about it for a moment... Bananas go speckled when ripe. Bell peppers go from green, to yellow, to orange to red as they ripen to perfection. Melons round out a little more, and when perfectly ripe look as if they might burst open - durian too. Conversely look out for the less-positive signs, such as those of unripeness (green-ness) and mould or decay (white or brown). None of these you want. You want robust, sparkling, "come and get me" kinds of foods that will impart some of what they've got to you!
SMELL - Fresh fruits should smell, but many don't. A lot of this is down to the air miles they have travelled, being picked while unripe and being kept in storage too long and at too cool temperatures. So try to select fruits that do have a good natural scent wherever possible. This is most likely to be possible with some good quality mangoes, tomatoes, red bell peppers, some pineapples, some melons and bananas. This list is by no means the definitive guide, but it is my experience here in the UK. Of course local and seasonal is going to be best.
TOUCH - What the eyes can't see and the nose cannot smell, the fingers can feel. And picking up and squeezing your food is also hugely important. This is especially true with fruits which generally speaking need to "melt" a little when you squeeze them - that is to "give" a bit with gentle pressure but not stay dented! Good examples are avocados, mangoes and oranges.
SOUND - Yes we can use our hearing to detect good food! That doesn't mean to wait for your apples to sing or your sweetcorn to sigh, but in the case of melons - the perfect example - if you tap your potential purchase with your fist while holding it to your ear you are listening out for a dull thud. If it sounds weak or tinny, it's not yet ripe - put it back and try again!
And finally - TASTE. Well that's the ultimate test but not always practical in a shop setting which is why you have to learn how to rely on your other three or four senses. But if you CAN get to taste the foods before you buy, then of course, go right ahead and use your finest sense of all to make your buying decisions for you.
So that's how to select the best fresh produce, but what about all the other raw foods like nuts, seeds, olives, dried herbs and spices, oils and all the raw foods that come in a bottle, packet or jar?
How To Select The Best Dried / Pre-Packaged Produce
Organic and fresh always need to remain your priority however your raw foods show up, but there's a lot about food that we don't have a clue about until we start investigating and what I have discovered along the way is this:
Nuts. The best way to buy nuts is in their shells, but when this isn't possible then buy de-shelled nuts that are as whole, unchipped and unmarked as possible. And when you've bought them they should ideally be kept in the fridge, as their oils can go rancid, especially when out of the shell. Yes, it's true, some "raw" nuts are heat treated, Brazils and cashews being the most likely suspects, but personally I do not let this become too much of an issue. Having seen some people become what others might regard as a little too neurotic about whether their "raw" nuts are truly raw, I think it far better to eat these foods even if they're lightly heat treated than not to eat them at all.
Seeds. These tend to be a lot hardier, and less prone to rancidity than nuts, so just going for organic, generally speaking should take care of making a good choice.
Olives. Perhaps surprisingly most olives are not raw. They are often pasteurised during the bottling process and usually highly treated to make them palatable (natural olives are very bitter), are bottled in brine (salt water) and often with a preservative mixed in. If you've tasted truly raw olives you'll know that there really is no comparison, and if you haven't then you're in for a treat. NB: To my knowledge truly raw olives are only available by mail order in the UK, but the brand "Olives et Al" are the best of the rest available in shops UK-wide with minimal processing and are great tasting too.
Dried herbs and spices. These are subjected to heat in order to dry them out, however, you will use so little of them in your "un-cooking" that in my opinion it's really not worth getting too excited about that fact! Start by opting simply for organic and when you have more time see what different quality of dried herbs and spices are out there...
Sea vegetables. These are sometimes heated sometimes not. Not very helpful! - so you may have to read the packet carefully or ask the vendor or manufacturer. In the case of nori sheets, one of my personal favourites, you need to go for purple/black sheets rather than green (the opposite way to what you might think). The green is toasted and doesn't taste as good either.
Oils. Most oils are heat treated to some degree, yes, even the ones that say "cold pressed" can be subjected to heat. It's all to do with the amount of heat generated during the processing - the temperatures can get quite high and so the oil ends up being quite a different product than it would have been if the extraction method was a lot more gentle. There are oils on the market that are produced with minimal heat, and yes, again, you will most definitely taste the difference, but these are a lot more expensive and can be harder to get hold of, so to start with just go for virgin, cold-pressed organic oils and this will be a huge step in the right direction.
So that's the pre-packed stuff. Anything not mentioned here is relatively problem-free to find, and if you use the "raw and organic" rule as your main criteria for selection then, generally speaking, you can't go too far wrong.
© 2007 Karen Knowler
Karen Knowler, The Raw Food Coach publishes "Successfully Raw" - a free weekly eZine for raw food lovers everywhere. If you're ready to look good, feel great and create a raw life you love get your FREE tips, tools and recipes now at www.TheRawFoodCoach.com.