Stopped from making notes while shopping

Yesterday for the first time in my life I was asked to leave a store by irate shop staff! The short version: Supernature at Park House has a company policy that forbids customers from taking photos as well as even *writing* any notes in the store.

The long version: Followers of my ConsumerWatch series on this blog will know I like to compare products and prices to make the most informed choices. In one of my rare visits to Supernature, I was excited to find some products I had recently enjoyed in the UK and amongst their wide range, certain brands I haven’t seen in other Singapore shops. I was doubly excited to note that despite the shop’s high prices for most goods compared to other stores in Singapore, some things were significantly cheaper! I was in the middle of noting down all the products I planned to buy on my next visit when the shop staff caught me on CCTV and swooped in to stop my suspicious activity. Of course, I could have promised to stop and continued shopping, but I was so shocked and humiliated that I voluntarily left the store. I also decided not to argue about ‘company policy’ with the staff ,who was most likely just a regular worker doing her job and not a manager (she was wearing an apron and spoke to me in Mandarin).

Stores have every right to lay down rules for their customers, and the right to stop people from shopping in their store. From their point of view, I could certainly have been an agent of industrial espionage from a rival company. As an expanding and highly-commercialised enterprise (wow! Supernature really looks like a good-sized supermarket now!) located near the ultra-posh St Regis Hotel, they’re probably not interested in the kind of customer who wants to do price-comparison.

However, I would argue that for health foods, it’s not just about prices, but the even more important aspect of doing research about particular brands, ingredients, origin of products, possible allergic reactions etc. Looks like Supernature is not a store that will help me make the best consumer choices, for my health as well as my wallet.

As a point of comparison, at Nature’s Glory, customers can pick up a 24-page (A4 size) full product list providing details of brand names, package size and price so that you can place delivery orders from home.

For what it’s worth, here are the few price comparisons I observed yesterday (prices could be a few cents off, sorry I wasn’t able to take notes!):

Bonsoy
Supernature – S$5.95
Eat Organic – S$4.70
NTUC Finest – S$4.70

Nairn’s oat cookies (great wheat-free snack!)
Supernature – S$8.95
Marketplace at Paragon – S$8.60
Eat Organic – S$8.00

Lundberg Organic Long-Grain Brown Rice
Supernature – S$5.45 [cheap!!]
NTUC, Cold Storage & most stores – S$7.30 ++

Food intolerance-friendly airline meals

Hello again after a long break! I have been away and will be travelling again soon so have some possibly helpful travel tips for anyone flying by Singapore Airlines.

The last time I went overseas by Cathay Pacific, I prepared an elaborate set of bento boxes to last me halfway round the globe, as I described here. This time, it was just a short 5-hour flight and I decided to order one of Singapore Airlines’ special ‘Medical Meals’.

Here is the amazing list of ‘Medical Meal’ choices:

  • Bland Meal: No “irritants” (e.g. black pepper, chilli powder, caffeine, cocoa, alcohol)
  • Diabetic Meal: No sugar; limited salt
  • Fruit Platter Meal: Fresh fruits only
  • Gluten Free Meal: No wheat, rye, barley, oats in any form
  • Low Sodium, No Salt Added Meal: Avoid naturally-salted, sodium-added processed foods (e.g. Baking powder, soda, MSG); no salt added during preparation
  • Low Calorie Meal: Limited fats, sauces, gravy and fried items; limited sugar-rich items
  • Low Fat/Cholesterol Meal: No animal fats but poly-unsaturated fatty acids allowed; limited fats, sauces, and gravy fried items; no butter, cream, whole milk cheese; only lean meat allowed
  • Low Fibre/Residue Meal: Limited fibrous items (e.g. fruit, legumes, vegetables, wholegrain products)
  • Non-Carbohydrate Meal: No starch and carbohydrates in any form
  • Non-Lactose Meal: No lactose and dairy products (e.g. milk, milk solids, casein, cheese, cream, butter, margarine)
  • Soft Fluid Meal: Mainly sieved, soupy items
  • Semi Fluid Meal: Mainly pureed, minced, easily digestible items (e.g. pureed vegetables, potatoes, fruits, minced, homogenized meat, porridge, congee)
  • Ulcer Diet Meal: Contains easily digestive plain poached/broiled foods (e.g. white meat, fish); no acidic food and fruits
  • Nut Free Meal: Please contact our Reservation Office for the necessary arrangement

After a short discussion on the phone with the airline staff, I chose the ‘Low Sodium, No Salt Added Meal’. On my return flight, the meal label was in Chinese, which said “無調味料”, which actually means  no added seasoning. I found out there is a option of Asian or Western versions, and I chose Western. It was a chicken breast with side vegetables and rice on the outgoing flight, and a very tender beef steak with side vegetables and potatoes on the return flight. There were also no sweet desserts. I loved the way they were all totally plain with no sauces or spices/herbs etc. yet the ingredients were flavourful enough on their own. Fabulous! Amines in the meats and salicylates in the vegetables aside, this is a pretty safe choice for me. No need to starve on long-distance travel anymore! (As long as I fly on Singapore Airlines, that is.)

P.S. Don’t forget Singapore Airlines offers also offers Religious Meals, Infant & Child Meals, a Seafood Meal and a range of Vegetarian Meals:

  • Raw Vegetarian Meal: Only raw fruits and vegetables
  • Vegetarian Oriental Meal: No meat or seafood of any sort; no dairy products; cooked Chinese-style
  • Vegetarian Indian Meal (non-strict): No meat of any sort; can contain dairy products; cooked Indian-style
  • Vegetarian Jain Meal (strict; suitable for Jain): No meat of any sort; no onion, garlic, ginger and all root vegetables; cooked Indian-style
  • Western Vegetarian (non-strict; ovo-lacto): No meat of any sort; can contain dairy products; cooked Western-style
  • Vegetarian Vegan Meal (strict): No meat of any sort; no dairy products; cooked Western-style

Gluten-free flour mix: rice, tapioca & soy flours

When it comes to learning about baking, I swear by the detailed explanations of baking theory as well as excellent recipes in Baking at Home with the Culinary Institute of America, so I was thrilled to find a new book from the Culinary Institute of America on gluten-free baking, Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America by Richard J. Coppedge Jr.

The most important principle I’ve learnt from this book is considering the protein content of flour mixes, and then selecting flour of the appropriate protein-level for the recipe. This is similar to using standard wheat flour of differing protein levels in the form of cake flour, pastry flour, bread flour etc. In Chinese language, wheat flour is labelled as low, medium or high protein. Do take a look at the page I wrote earlier about flour, including points on protein levels.

In Gluten-Free Baking with The Culinary Institute of America, Richard Coppedge gives five different flour blends listed in order of protein content. In the 150 recipes in the book, he uses each flour blend according to the texture required. Often he also uses a mixture of the different flour blends to refine the final product.

The only flours he uses are:

white rice flour
brown rice flour
potato starch
tapioca starch
soy flour, defatted (the natural oil content has been removed resulting in a higher percentage of protein content; defatted soy flour is noted to improve crumb body resilience, produce a more tender crumb, crumb colour and toasting properties, make smoother batter and give a more even distribution of air cells; see here and here)

as well as:

guar gum
albumen
whey powder
[BTW, can anyone tell me where to find albumen and whey powder in Singapore?]

Not being quite as fussy or precise about my baking results, I haven’t been following his recipes exactly, but simply putting together the flour blend that I find most convenient. Besides, not having albumen and whey powder, I’ve been unable to make up Flour Blend #3 (moderately strong; made with white rice flour, potato starch, guar gum and albumen) not Flour Blend #5 (the strongest; white rice flour, tapioca starch, defatted soy flour, whey powder).

Having already tried Flour Blend #2 (second weakest; white rice flour, brown rice flour, potato starch, tapioca starch) several times, I got some soy flour (not defatted though) to try an adaptation of Flour Blend #4 (stronger; white rice flour, tapioca starch, defatted soy flour). The proportions are:

8oz/225g white rice flour [which I replaced with brown rice flour]
8oz/225g tapioca starch
8oz/225g defatted soy flour [I used regular soy flour; using brown rice flour instead of white rice flour helped to raise the overall protein conten]

As compared to the gluten-free recipes posted earlier which use bean flours liberally, this flour blend has less of a strong taste.

Report of muffin recipe using this rice, tapioca & soy flour mix coming soon.

Epsom salt body scrub

Those of you who have read Sue Dengate’s books on food intolerances or the discussions on the Failsafe food intolerance discussion lists will have come across mention of Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate) as one way of counteracting food reactions. This article explains how sulphates form a key element in a particular detoxification pathway in the body, which “processes other phenolic compounds including salicylates (salicylates are a subset of phenols), artificial food colorings, artificial flavorings, and some preservatives.” Sulphates are not necessarily absorbed into the body well via the gut, so skin absorbtion by using Epsom salts is a good alternative.

Epsom salt is also a magnesium compound and magnesium is helpful in reducing muscle aches and stiffness as well as the tension that causes teeth grinding (see here, here and here).

The Epsom Salt Industry Council summarizes the health benefits:

Magnesium:

  • Ease stress and improves sleep and concentration
  • Help muscles and nerves function properly
  • Regulate activity of 325+ enzymes
  • Help prevent artery hardening and blood clots
  • Make insulin more effective
  • Reduce inflammation to relieve pain and muscle cramps
  • Improve oxygen use

Sulfates:

  • Flush toxins
  • Improve absorption of nutrients
  • Help form joint proteins, brain tissue and mucin proteins
  • Help prevent or ease migraine headaches

There are also beauty benefits to using Epsom salt because it can be used for exofoliating, as I learnt when I chanced upon this recipe for a DIY Epsom salt bath scrub on a great Singapore beauty blog which has a focus on natural & DIY skincare. She liked the Epsom salt scrub so much that she declared it her bath staple. (If you want to know where in Singapore to get cosmetics and toiletries with minimal/no chemical additives, you’ll find many suggestions on the Viva Woman blog.)

However, I would suggest leaving out the food colouring, and perhaps another option to jojoba/olive/almond oil might be coconut oil. Read about the benefits of coconut oil for skin here, here and here. I also happen to need to use up a huge 1 litre bottle of virgin coconut oil from Nature’s Glory :); I only use it occasionally or sparingly in baking and cooking as it imparts a very strong and distinctive flavour.

If you’re wondering where to get Epsom salt in Singapore (as I was for a long time), Viva Woman tells us “S$4.60 from Guardian Pharmacy”.

Preservative-free dried fruit at Nature’s Farm

This is great — I’ve discovered an easily-accessible source of dried fruit, including my favourite, cranberries. Nature’s Farm has dozens of outlets all over Singapore, so it’s great if you need to stock up on dried fruit for baking at short notice.

I remember the days when it was one of the only places that stocked health foods, these days the limited selection falls far short of the many health food shops that have sprung up all over the island.

However, the dried fruit is just what I’m looking for — labelled as unsweetened and unsulphured, and the price is very comparable to my regular organic food shops.

Dried cranberries from Nature's Farm

Dried cranberries from Nature's Farm

Buying Shinzi Katoh in Singapore

If your bento aesthetics lean towards zakka (such as FrankTastes), and you are hoping for Shinzi Katoh items to appear in your Christmas stocking this year, you might want to hint to your friends and family with these Singapore Shinzi Katoh shopping tips (^.^).

Maameemoo (Orchard Cineleisure, 02-09) is a tiny zakka heaven, with a selection of Shinzi Katoh items, including bento boxes and bags. Short totes (which can double as lunch bags) cost S$39 and there are regular new shipments, according to the sales assistant. I’ve seen a much larger zakka shop at Cathay Building, but can’t remember if they actually had Shinzi Katoh or bento items.

However, an online search turns up a few Singapore-based online zakka stores:
The Little Happy Shop
Zakkaart.com

Both of these seem well-organised at very similar prices: lunch totes at S$26.90 (The Little Happy Shop) and S$26 (Zakkaart.com), double-tier bento boxes at S$29.90 (The Little Happy Shop) and $$28 (Zakkaart.com), single-tier boxes at S$17.80 (The Little Happy Shop) and S$24 (Zakkaart.com). Don’t forget to factor in the delivery charges (pretty minimal if by standard mail within Singapore).

There is also Momo’s World, which seems to be a new online shop, less professionally-organised website than the other two and with a limited selection.

Or perhaps you want to order directly from Shinzi Katoh’s Japan online shop; prices vary according to design. Here’s a guide for English-speakers to navigate the site. Shinzi Katoh’s UK website also does international orders (currently 25% off lunchboxes): lunch totes are £18, single-tier boxes on sale at £7.50, double-tier ones – £8.65.

Don’t forget: if ordering lunchboxes, do check the size as the double-tier ones come in 460ml and 540ml. If the lunch bags are too small for you, another option could be the short tote bags which are the same height but twice the length of the lunch bags (W315×H160×D110mm).

N.B.: I haven’t purchased from any of these shops myself so no comments on the actual level of service. I’ll just keep wishing hard for my Christmas this year… or next.

My bento bags 3: two-layer Tzu Chi

Tzu Chi double-layer bento bag

Tzu Chi double-layer bento bag

Quite often I carry food for more than one meal and it’s a real hassle to get to the largest box (usually the main meal, lunch) at the bottom of the bag. Sometimes this involves unloading everything on top first, and going through the same process all over again to put the box back in!

After struggling with this a few times, I realised how much the two-layer bag from Tzu Chi Foundation would help me. Earlier, I wrote about the range of 便當 biangdang /bento equipment from this Taiwanese Buddhist organisation, which promotes concern for the environment. I’m a huge fan of their folding chopsticks.

[Speaking of folding chopsticks, I found a couple of varieties, including a screw-type similar to the Tzu Chi one, at NTUC Finest Bukit Timah, near the Chinese dried foods. However, they didn't seem to be very well-made, so I would hesitate to recommend them.]

This bag fits a rectangular lunchbox in the bottom zippered layer, the precise size of my Asvel box. I usually squeeze my plastic cutlery or folding chopsticks into this section too.

In the upper compartment, I’ll put my fruit box, tea time snacks and oshibori. There is also a small zipper pocket inside the upper layer – just nice for paper napkins but I have given those up in favour of the more environmentally-friendly oshibori. Sometimes I slip in a teabag if there’s going to be hot water at my lunch destination.

Once I put in all these, there’s no space for my 300ml insulated mug though, unlike with my Muji and Reisenthel bags.

Unfortunately, Tzu Chi in Singapore has moved from a convenient downtown location in Chinatown to Pasir Ris. So it’s worthwhile to call ahead and ask if they have stock. They were out when I wanted to buy this bag about six months ago, and I ended up getting a friend to buy it in Taiwan for me, where it cost about S$10.

********

My other bento bags: cream-coloured Muji and green & orange Reisenthel.

My bento bags 2: kiwi green & orange Reisenthel

bento-bag_riesenthel

Reisenthel lunchbag

The German brand, Reisenthel, is mostly known for its folding, environmentally-friendly shopping bags. Whilst browsing the colourful designs at Tangs one day, I chanced upon these small tote bags intended for young children – going by the photographs on the tags. However, they are a perfect size for bento too. I can’t seem to find this bag on the official Reisenthel website though.

Tangs had them in three colours: kiwi green with orange trimming, sky blue with lime trimming, and if I remember correctly also pink with sky blue trimming. The price was S$12.95.

Features I like are the zip closure, the zippered inner side pocket, and the square base, which makes this ideal for square bento boxes that don’t fit so well into my Muji and Tzu Chi bags which are designed for rectangular boxes.

This is big enough to hold a lunch box, extra boxes for fruit, teatime snack, cutlery, oshibori as well as my 300ml insulated mug.

*******

My other bento bags: cream-coloured Muji and double-layered Tzu Chi.

Choosing insulated mugs

It being the Christmas season and with plenty of sales in the shops, you might be looking to buy an insulated mug. I just saw a newspaper ad for a Thermos warehouse sale this weekend — sorry, I can’t remember the details because I already have enough insulated mugs & flasks and don’t intend to buy anymore (^_^) !

Insulated mugs

Insulated mugs

These are three stainless steel insulated mugs that I have: 290ml Thermos food/soup jar, 300ml Tiger brand slim mug, 450ml Tiger mug with compartment on top of lid for storing tea leaves. Not in the photo is a large 1 litre Thermos food flask I have in which you can make congee (rice porridge).

I’ve learnt that one of the very important thing to look out for is whether the screwtop grooves are on the inside or outside.

Tiger mug - grooves inside

Tiger mug - grooves inside

Thermos jar - grooves outside

Thermos jar - grooves outside

Initially, I used my 290ml Thermos food jar for hot beverages such as tea and powdered grain drinks but soon found that the drink would seep down the grooves and drip down the outside of the mug, making for a very sticky experience. With solid foods, or if you only open the mug once or twice, this is not a problem, but with hot powdered grain drinks, I would replace the lid and shake the mug in between sips throughout the day and every time I opened the lid, I’d end up having to wipe my hands and the mug with a wet tissue (or oshibori, if lucky enough to have one on me ^.^).

To solve the problem, I got my second insulated mug, the burgundy-coloured 450ml Tiger brand one, where the grooves are on the inside. I discovered that of all the stainless steel insulated flasks on sale in Singapore, only Tiger brand has the grooves inside. The bad news is that the big sales – sometimes storewide at department stores or for individual stainless steel brands such as Thermos and La Gourmet – usually exclude Tiger brand. Tiger is also the most expensive of all the brands T_T.

This particular Tiger model has a ‘take-apart stopper’ where the rubber parts can be removed to make cleaning easier. Tea-drinkers can also use the screw compartment on top of the lid for storing tea leaves. However, I’ve never used it as I usually brew tea in a pot and pour the ready-made tea into the mug.

After using my 450ml Tiger flask mostly for carrying tea, I realised that almost half a litre of tea is simply too much caffeine for me, resulting in stomach discomfort (and insomnia if drunk in the evening). And with no/low caffeine or herbal teas, such as kukicha, mugicha, or oksusucha, a large amount of strong brew can produce a rather unfortunate laxative effect on me!

Which led to the purchase of the 300ml Tiger slim mug. This is about the volume of a normal coffee mug, with an elegant, lightweight design that makes it perfect for the lunchbag. I use this flask almost everyday now. It’s so well-used that the charcoal-coloured coating has been scratched in a few places already.

A final word on choosing stainless steel insulated brands, I totally wasted my money on a La Gourmet mug. It’s the type with plastic lid that has a small opening with a sliding cover for you to drink from. No matter how I screw the lid on, the liquid leaks out through the screwtop grooves when I try to drink. The leakage is so bad it’s completely impossible to drink with the lid on. In fact, my freebie giveaway stainless steel mug with where the plastic drinking lid is sealed with a rubber gasket, works way better. Will never be tempted by cheap La Gourmet prices again.

Breakfast cereals and cold milk

Before my recent foray into breakfast cereals a couple of weeks ago, I can’t remember when was the previous time I crunched on bowl of crispy breakfast cereal in cold dairy milk. With most commercial cereals full of sugar and additives, not to mention the fact that Kelloggs cereals in Singapore are produced regionally and are much inferior in taste (as I remember from years and years ago, when I was still eating processed foods from the supermarket).

However, I’ve recently noticed the wide variety of breakfast cereals made from alternative grains on health food shelves, including NTUC Finest. For example, from Arrowhead Mills, there’s amaranth, spelt and kamut flakes, while from Nature’s Path brand, you can get spelt or millet flakes, or even ‘heirloom wholegrain’ cereal containing “Organic Kamut®* wheat flour, organic wheat bran, organic evaporated cane juice, organic spelt flour, organic whole oat flour, organic whole wheat meal, organic barley flour, organic whole millet, organic barley malt extract, organic quinoa, sea salt, organic honey.”

First, I chomped through a delicious box of crispy oat flakes from Arrowhead Mills — not raw oats that have to be cooked into a porridge, but just like cornflakes. Having forsworn Kelloggs’ cornflakes so long ago, I had totally erased the idea of cornflakes from my consciousness, but the ‘gluten-free’ tag drew my attention to Nature’s Path Honey’d Corn Flakes (Organic corn meal, organic evaporated cane juice, organic honey, sea salt). What a rediscovery for me! I couldn’t believe how delicious this box of cornflakes tasted, largely thanks to an excellent crisp texture.

As for the milk part, occasionally, I’ll indulge with dairy milk, but otherwise, I’ll rotate oat, rice and soy milks.

Yaay, one more viable snack option :).

29/11/08 Update: Cheapest place to buy Nature’s Path cereals that I’ve found in Singapore so far is Meidi-ya supermarket. It costs S$5.95 a box, which is the same or just a bit more than standard brands like Kelloggs and Post. It’s stocked on the regular breakfast cereal shelves, next to Arrowhead Mills cereals.

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