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Eating Healthy in Shanghai

Shanghai has many traditionally unhealthy local dishes. However, with a burgeoning expat community, an awareness of the pesticides used in some produce, and an increase in organic food available, Shanghai is beginning to change for the better.


Shanghai is one of the busiest and most exciting cities in the world, with a huge financial centre, a booming nightlife, and plenty of great places to eat. The food of Shanghai is traditionally not healthy, with a heavy preference for sugary sauces, and starchy and fried foods. However, with a burgeoning expat community, and more global awareness of the health effects of diets containing sugary, fatty, pesticide ridden, or processed foods, Shanghai is beginning to make a shift towards healthier eating habits. While it is relatively expensive to eat healthy and organic in Shanghai, the increasing trend for healthier food options should bring a drop in prices as more people convert to a healthier diet, something which will only have a positive effect on the people of Shanghai.

Traditional Local Dishes

Traditionally, Shanghai food uses a lot of sugar. A common sauce used in Shanghai is composed of sugar and soy sauce which, though tasty, is not healthy at all, as it contains both sugar and salt in large quantities. Furthermore, the emphasis on dumplings (such as xiaolongbao) and other starchy breakfast items dipped in sweet or salty sauces compounds this unhealthy local diet. However, generally the overall portion sizes for breakfast items are very small which ensures that your waistline isn’t going to feel the negative health effects too severely.

There are healthy foods that are traditionally enjoyed in Shanghai as well. As the city is situated on the East China Sea, there is an abundance of fresh seafood available all over, including crab, oysters, and crawfish. Seafood is excellent for your health (provided you do not coat it in sugary sauces). Other popular snacks available from street vendors include braised eggplant, and baked sweet potatoes which are healthy alternatives to fried and doughy snacks. Dry fried green beans is another common dish that has healthy properties.

The Problem of Pesticides

China is renowned for a somewhat lax quality control of their products, as well as a generally poor standard of practice regarding farming methods and other food related processes. This unfortunately means that a lot of produce grown in China is done so with the aid of pesticides. Chemical pesticides are known to be toxic and to have adverse health effects if food sprayed with them is consumed in large quantities. With the admission of farmers in China as to the amount of chemical pesticides and fertilisers they use in their farming, how can we guarantee that the produce bought in China is of a good and safe standard?

If you are worried about the possibility of pesticides in your food, there are some steps that can be taken. Firstly, try and eat organic produce whenever possible. Moves have been made in the organic growing industry in China, with official seals representing certified organically grown produce, but this comes at an added price for the consumer. Secondly, we can be more aware of what foods are likely to contain pesticides, and how to avoid consuming the chemicals if they are used to grow our food. Certain foods are more susceptible to pesticides than others, namely: strawberries, grapes, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, apples, and spinach. Make sure to buy these vegetables when they are in season, as anything that looks robust and fresh when it is out of season has probably been grown with the aid of pesticides. If you have purchased these foods that you think may have pesticides in them, then peeling off the outer layers reduces (though doesn’t prevent) the chance of you consuming these intoxicants. The revelation regarding the quality of general produce in China (it being laden with harmful chemicals) has led to some industry overhaul, and the birth of a growing organic food sector, as more people are caring about their health and what they put into their bodies.

The Rise of Organic Food: Where to Buy Organic Food and a List of Healthy Restaurants

Organic food is considerably healthier than the alternative produce available in China. Organic farming avoids the use of chemical pesticides which harm the body and the promotes environmentally friendly practices through transitioning away from the dangerous pesticides that affect the atmosphere, soil quality, and water quality as well.

The qualities that determine if food is organic is if, firstly, the growing process doesn’t involve synthetic pesticides, fertilisers, or any other damaging chemical products. Secondly, organic food in China must meet with official certification processes as administered by the Chinese National Organic Program Standard (CNOPS) since 2005. These standards were derived from other organic practices overseas as part of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements (IFOAM), and if that wasn’t enough anagrams, for added certification, organic food can also bear labels from the Organic Food Development Centre (OFDC) - the company that developed the first organic certification program in China in 1994. The produce that comes out of these practices is considerably healthier than pesticide ridden alternatives, and is also better for the environment, as organic farming often adopts sustainable practices such as crop rotation and conservation methods that ensure the soil remains high quality, and that there is no environmental consequences through polluted water or air.

In Shanghai, there are a few shops and supermarkets that sell organic food, as well as an increasing number of healthy restaurants that offer a range of food from fresh organic ingredients, to vegan and vegetarian restaurants.

Buying Organic:

For organic ingredients to take home, head over to: Carrefour, Auchan, or Shanghai City. Alternatively, there is a Farmers’ Market held in Shanghai on the third Sunday of every month (except Jan., Feb., Jul., and Aug.) at the Shanghai Centre. There are some companies that will regularly deliver a box of organic produce straight to your door, such as Biofarm, Yi Mu Tian, Tony’s Farm, Fields, City Shop, Shanghai Organics, Helekang, and Mahota Biodynamic Farm. Most of these companies will also let you (in fact encourage you to) visit their organic farms to check out the organic farming methods first hand.

Organic Restaurants:

There are a number of restaurants in Shanghai specifically claiming to be organic now. These include (but are not limited to); Organic Kitchen Shanghai, Qimin Organic Hot Pot, Ming Tang Organic Dining Wine & Bar

Health Restaurants (Vegetarian and Vegan places):

Kush, Kechara Tea House, New Age Veggie, Vegetarian Lifestyle, Greenology, Godly, Healthy Home, Lucky Zen, Ming Sheng Healthy Vegan Restaurant, Taiwan Brother 7 Vegan Hut and more can be found with a simple google search. Beware that though these restaurants claim to be vegetarian or vegan, there is sometimes the chance of cross-contamination of the produce with meat products during preparation or delivery, and “vegan” restaurants may not be entirely accurately branded.

The Price Problem

The expat community of Shanghai has been instrumental in the slow migration towards healthier food becoming available in shops and restaurants. Organic and health food is far more of a common phenomenon in the West, and so it was the expat community who wanted the same options to be available in China that aided the shift to organic produce. That is not to say that local Chinese people do not want healthier food, and the organic produce is being purchased and grown by an increasing number of local people. However there is one distinguishing factor that is keeping many local Chinese people from switching to healthier food, and that is the price of organic food.

Organic food is considerably more expensive to purchase than the mass produced, chemical ridden alternative. Unfortunately this limits its availability to people in a higher income bracket. Traditionally, this would be the expat community, and a few choice Chinese families. However, the Chinese economy has been booming as of late, creating more and more wealthy individuals who would have the capacity to purchase these healthier, but more expensive goods. The affluent population of China are taking on board the switch to healthier produce, but there are still millions of Chinese people, particularly rural families, who cannot afford to buy organic food. They must grow their own, or eat processed, chemical filled food. The owner of health cafe ‘Melange Oasis’, Matteo Ferraboschi, claims that his clientele is 80% European expats, and only 20% local Shanghai residents. This may be down to Westerners being more aware of the option to eat organic or healthy produce, and a lack of education amongst local Chinese people as to the dangers of eating processed and pesticide ridden food, who therefore maintain their purchasing of the cheaper, unhealthy produce.

There are increasingly more health food options becoming available in Shanghai. The rise of organic food in supermarkets, through delivery organic food boxes, and in vegetarian and vegan restaurants demonstrates the desire in Shanghai to become healthier. Unfortunately, it will take time for everyone in Shanghai to have healthier food options, as the price of organic produce remains expensive, and the general populace still need to be educated as to the dangers of eating processed food, and food grown with chemical pesticides. Regardless, steps have been taken in the right direction which bodes well for the future of Shanghai and its people.