When it's worth spending a little more on an ingredient

Four dietitians and one celebrity chef share what ingredients supermarkets can promote as worth the extra money for shoppers.

November 13, 2012

In today's economic climate with food prices rising, many families have had to make sacrifices that include choosing less costly food products and treating some foods as luxuries reserved only for special occasions, if at all. For some shoppers, when budgeting for groceries and meal planning, it can be difficult to determine where spending a little more on an ingredient is worth the extra money. When baking chocolate cookies, is it worth it to buy those premium chocolate chips and go cheap on the other ingredients? And can supermarkets help guide their customers in these decisions?

We asked four dietitians and one celebrity chef to give us some suggestions on ingredients that are worth the extra spending when it comes to flavor and health benefits. Here's what they had to say:  

Butter and Lemons - Chef Eric Greenspan

Eric Greenspan is the executive chef and owner of The Foundry (West Hollywood, CA), The Roof on Wilshire (located atop the Hotel Wilshire, Los Angeles, CA), and the upcoming Greenspan's Grilled Cheese with its first location opening in West Hollywood. He has been featured on the Food Network's “The Next Iron Chef” and recently defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America.”

There is no substitute for real butter. Margarine, pan spray, even shortening, let alone the various butter-like spreads, may serve the same purpose (lubrication, viscosity, emulsifier), but nothing compares to the flavor of real butter. Even the health conscious needs are outweighed by the sacrifice of flavor and texture that only real butter can provide.

And there is no substitute for fresh lemons. While pre-fabricated juice can save time, the intensity of fresh lemons cannot be replicated. Let alone the fact that they come with usable zest for offlactory effect, free of charge."

TLR suggestions for supermarkets: Build promotions/displays around a dish using butter and lemons as ingredients, such as a simple vegetable pasta dish. Suggest less expensive pasta and frozen vegetables for ingredients, and use the real lemons and real butter to elevate the flavor.

Fresh Salmon or Trout and Spices - Sylvia Geiger

Sylvia Geiger (MS,RD) - University of Vermont and Education Chair for the Food and Culinary Professions of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic.

There are several foods that always make their way into my grocery cart—even on days when I’m aiming to curb my spending. Fresh salmon, either wild or farmed is one such food. Not only do I find it to be absolutely delicious, but its flash-in-pan quick and versatile. Put a bit of olive oil into a nonstick pan, add the salmon and pour on your favorite spice mix. Turn the heat down and cover—ten to fifteen minutes later—Voila!—perfectly cooked salmon. Or place a fillet on a nonstick baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and rub-in a curry or Cajun blend. Pop it onto the middle shelf of a hot 375 oven and bake for 15 minutes—simple, delicious and quick. It’s a high protein food, rich in the omega-3 fats we need for a healthy heart, functioning immune system and an alert and responsive mind. It's cousin, farmed trout, is often a lower priced alternative that shares salmon’s nutritional benefits and receives high marks for sustainability.

Spices are another food I’m not willing to skimp on. While it’s true, they can be very pricey—they are an absolute must for healthy cooking and essential for creating foods with authentic world flavors. They add depth and complexity to any dish and allow you to cut down on sugar and salt. An added boon is that many spices such as turmeric and cinnamon are rich in healthful antioxidants. For that reason alone, they deserve a place in our shopping carts. A tip for those wanting to add more spice to their cooking—add the spices when you’re adding the oil or fat. Most of the aromatic compounds in spices need a bit of oil to release their flavor and aroma.

TLR suggestion for supermarkets: Build promotions/displays that showcase fresh seafood dishes paired with cinnamon. There's lots of great recipes out there using this spice with fish! Highlight the health benefits of seafood and/or trout and also cinnamon. Or showcase turmeric, a more exotic spice with an array of health benefits, as an ingredient for a seafood paella dish.

Nuts - Deanna Segrave-Daly

Deanna Segrave-Daly is a registered dietitian who loves food as much as you do. She is co-founder and partner at Teaspoon Communications and blogs at www.teaspoonofspice.com.

Even when I'm watching my pennies, I always have a variety of nuts in my pantry - peanuts, cashews, pistachios and pecans are my favorites. Nuts can be pricey (I usually find peanuts are the best bargain), but they are a wonderful source of protein and the hearty healthy fats. They are super versatile - from a satisfying snack (a handful is a good portion) to homemade nut butters (I throw peanuts into the food processor with a little bit of peanut oil.) I toss nuts into green salads with fresh or dried fruit and sliced cheese. You can create endless flavor combinations. I add them to veggie stir-fries or whole grain dishes featuring farro, quinoa or wild rice. I like to make pesto with pistachios and arugula (in place of pine nuts and basil.) And lastly, with the holidays coming up, nut recipes make terrific gifts - I've been making curried pecans for several special occasions.

TLR suggestion for supermarkets: How about building a display around the versatility of nuts? Feature several different varieties, and use a chalkboard sign to list colorfully a dish that uses each variety of nut. The ideas from Deanna Segrave-Daly above are a great place to start!

Olive Oil - Kylie Bentley, RD/LD

Kylie Bentley is the Regional Dietitian for H-E-B in Austin. She is the in-store nutrition expert for both customers and H-E-B Partners. Prior to working at  H-E-B, Kylie provided specialized nutrition counseling in physician offices for several years.

The one item you don't want to skimp on at the supermarket is olive oil. A high quality olive oil may prevent or lower your risk of diseases, while elevating your food to another level. The health benefits of olive oil are attributed to high levels of antioxidants, which prevent cellular damage, and monounsaturated fats, which help to lower total cholesterol and LDL ("bad" ) cholesterol. Replacing saturated and trans fats with monounsaturated fats has been shown to decrease the risk heart disease, certain cancers, and to lower insulin levels. Aside from the health benefits, extra virgin olive oil satisfies the palate and provides subtle nuances of flavor otherwise lost to overly processed oils. Experiment with olive oils from different regions, because the weather, soil and type of olive used will influence the finished product. You may try some with grassy undertones and some that taste like pure butter. In general, extra virgin oils is the perfect finishing touch on hummus, brushcetta, or homemade vinaigrettes and pasta salad. Virgin olive oil also provides the aforementioned health benefits, however, the oil is processed one step further to withstand higher cooking temperatures without compromising the flavor.  Just remember when you are shopping, a little oil goes a long way, and the price of a good olive oil is one health investment that your taste buds will salute!

TLR suggestion for supermarkets: Set up an olive oil sample station hosted by your store's dietitian, so shoppers can ask questions about the differences, the health benefits, and the many uses.
 
Cheese - Caroline Passerrello

Caroline Passerrello (MS, RD, LDN) - Manager of Dietitian Initiatives for Giant Eagle, Inc.

My refrigerator will always have a full flavored cheese – that is not low fat –readily available! Low-fat cheeses often have a milder taste than their full-fat versions and can be incorporated into a lot of dishes that rely heavily on cheese in the ingredients to improve the nutrition profile of the dish. But when it comes to topping my whole wheat pasta or garnishing otherwise simple dishes of grilled chicken or salmon with veggies there is no substitute for Parmigiano-Reggiano. When you select a cheese with such a complex flavor and granular texture you do not need more than a sprinkle to enhance the flavor of any dish. So the initial price tag is high, but because you use more sparingly than you would with a lesser quality substitute, it is fairly cost neutral over time with an unparalleled taste as a result. Giant Eagle has certified cheese mongers and registered dietitians on staff at many of our locations to help you select the perfect cheese for your tastes and health needs.
 
TLR suggestion for supermarkets: Cheese sample stations can always be a great way to introduce your customers to the different kinds. And the possibilities are endless when it comes to incorporating different cheeses in dishes. A great point made by Caroline Passerello is that cheese with complex flavors can be used more sparingly, so let shoppers know more pricey can go a long way in a dish and elevate the flavor!

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