(ARA) - If you've been skipping the bulk-shopping aisle because you think you just don't need five-gallon containers and full cases of foods, do your budget a favor and take a closer look. Fact is, "bulk" in food stores refers to how the store offers the product, not how much you have to buy. In fact, you can buy a pinch or a pound and benefit from buying in bulk.
The idea that you have to buy large quantities is one of the misperceptions about buying bulk. Ellen Bouchard, bulk manager at Frontier Natural Products Co-op, describes and dispels the following common bulk-food myths and provides shopping tips for consumers.
Myth No. 1: You must buy in large quantities to buy bulk.
False. In fact, bulk offers an easy and economical way to expand your food horizons by letting you try small amounts of unfamiliar products. You can buy just a pinch of the exotic spice or a cup of the unfamiliar grain called for in a recipe. Or you might purchase small quantities of a number of spices and seasonings or spice blends, such as garam masala, to experiment with a new ethnic cuisine. If you think you might like to try something new, buying in bulk enables you to purchase a small quantity without worrying about wasting money.
Myth No. 2: It's wasteful to buy in bulk.
Quite the opposite, because you can buy just the amount you need. Keep in mind that prices for bulk products are considerably lower than the packaged versions, and the full amount of your purchase goes toward the product, not packaging or advertising. In addition, manufacturing that package wastes energy and resources. So when you buy in bulk and reuse storage containers, it's a positive contribution to the planet's health.
Myth No. 3: It's hard to know what's in those bins and if it's fresh.
Again, not true - bulk foods are often of higher quality, fresher, and more natural than packaged products. They're also more likely to be locally produced. Good labeling practices by retailers will indicate the manufacturer or producer of that bulk item and whether it's organic and/or Fair Trade Certified. For example, the bulk products from Frontier, available in most natural food stores and health-food departments of grocery stores, are natural and sustainably grown. Many are certified organic, too. (Frontier also sells its bulk products online in 1-pound quantities at www.frontiercoop.com.)
Myth No. 4: The bulk selection is limited.
Another misconception. Some products you'll likely find in the bulk aisle: beans, flours, grains, nuts and seeds, cereals, herbs and spices, pastas, teas and coffees, and household and toiletry items such as laundry detergent and soaps.
Myth No. 5: Bulk products are low quality.
False. Bulk products are most often of equal or higher quality than their packaged counterparts. Many exotic and gourmet items are only available in bulk, as are some Fair Trade Certified and certified organic products. For example, do you know how many types of cinnamon exist? In some bulk spice aisles, you can find multiple varieties of cinnamon, ranging from traditional Korintje (3 percent oil) to premium Vietnamese (5 percent oil) to Ceylon cinnamon from Sri Lanka.
Tips for buying in bulk
* Before you go shopping, look in your cupboards to see which items you usually purchase in packages or cans that you can now purchase in the bulk aisle. Glass is safer than plastics for food storage, so you might want to buy some airtight glass jars in various sizes.
* Explore the store's bulk section a bit, trying one or two new items each visit.
* When filling your containers, use the scoops or the dispensers provided. Take your time and be neat, but if you spill something, there's no need to panic. Just ask a staff person for help in cleaning it up.
* Most stores will have you write down the item number and price of the item (from the bin) before you take your selections to the register.
Here's a fun recipe that lets you try out the "buy a pinch" of seasoning concept.
Thai Peanut Dip
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1/3 cup coconut milk
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 tablespoon Thai Seasoning
Stir together all ingredients until smooth. For a thinner sauce, add more coconut milk. Toss with cooked noodles. Or serve with Thai Summer Rolls.