Understanding Food Safety

By: the American Institute for Preventive Medicine

Although these days most of us are concerned with fat and fiber more than we are with poisoning and pesticides, it is important not to forget that food can affect our health in more ways than one. After all, we eat the stuff. Fortunately, many of the problems that tainted food presents can be prevented by careful selection, handling, preparation, and storage.

Food safety is, in fact, an essential part of healthy eating. Underestimating the danger of food-borne illness, pesticides and other harmful food dangers can cause sickness and even, in some cases, is fatal. Therefore, learning about what to avoid in foods, how to cook and store items and what the components added to our foods are is very important. In this article, we'll examine the following food safety topics:

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  • Food-Borne Illnesses Also sometimes referred to as "food poisoning," food-borne illness can be a serious concern. Prepared or served improperly, fish, raw fish and shellfish and other items can cause short-term or serious illness, and in some cases, death. However, so can incorrect food preparation and storage. Learn how to safely select, cook and preserve foods.
Some toxins appear naturally in foods without being added. Seemingly harmless foods such as peanuts, potatoes and celery can all pose risks when they become no longer fresh or are eaten in excessive quantities. Get information about what toxins exist, signs to look for and when to throw out various food items.
  • Food Additives Despite their somewhat dubious reputation, not all additives put in food are bad; in fact, some additives can actually improve food's freshness, content and flavor. But how do you know which additives are helpful, and which are harmful? Find out what food additives, such as aflatoxin, are almost unavoidable, which are beneficial, what often-used additives do to food and which ones you should avoid.
  • Food and PesticidesPesticides, used to protect and enhance produce, have come under fire in recent years. Concerns that the chemicals used to grow produce might be making consumers sick has led to generally negative feelings toward pesticides -- and a boom in organic produce. Rinsing produce alone won't always rid it of pesticides. Find out why pesticides are used, what to avoid and also, how to reduce the risk of ingesting pesticides that may be present on your food.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Food-Borne Illnesses

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Raw oysters can cause vibrio poisoning, but any poorly refrigerated shellfish,especially shrimp and mollusks, are a risk.

Often, we assume everything we eat is healthy -- and that introducing illiness, bacteria or other problems into food when selecting, cooking or preparing food is next to impossible. We take for granted that the food we purchase, prepare and save as leftovers is safe, and that the chance of it making us sick is unlikely.

However, that isn't the case. If you think food-borne illness -- or "food poisoning" as it's commonly but incorrectly called -- is a relatively minor occurrence with relatively minor consequences, think again. There are millions of cases of food-borne illness in the United States each year. That's not even counting all the cases wrongly attributed to the nebulous "stomach flu."

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Far from being innocuous, food-borne illnesses land many people in the hospital; some even die. The effects of food-borne illness can be long-lasting. Some fish-borne diseases can leave a victim with nerve damage. Reactive arthritis is an allergic-type reaction that has long-lasting effects on joints.

Unfortunately, these days, food-borne illnesses are only getting deadlier. New organisms are cropping up and minor players are becoming major players.

But it doesn't have to be this way. Prevention is the name of the game with food-borne illnesses. The solution lies in how often and how well you wash your hands and utensils, how you store your food, and how you cook it.

Fish Gone Bad

Many of the forms of food-borne illness that are on the rise originate in fish. They're not well-known, but they can be deadly. Many involve toxins that can't be detected and aren't killed by refrigeration or cooking. You can protect yourself by not eating raw fish or fish pulled from questionable waters, but the only foolproof prevention is to avoid eating susceptible fish. Here's a sampling:

  • Anasakiasis has symptoms (fever, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting) that don't appear for a week, so diagnosis is often missed. It's not common, but it is a risk whenever you eat raw fish. The organism's larva can penetrate the stomach lining, causing severe pain that mimics an ulcer. Cooking and freezing will kill the organism (ask for sushi made from frozen fish).
  • Paralytic shellfish poisoning causes an immediate burning sensation of mouth and extremities, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea and can lead to muscle weakness and paralysis. The neurotoxic form may take hours to appear, but it is milder. The illness is caused by toxins formed in mollusks -- mussels, clams, scallops -- off the Pacific, New England, and Florida coasts.
  • Ciguatera poisoning causes the typical nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that starts 6 to 12 hours after eating, but it is followed by slowed heart rate, low blood pressure, severe itching, a characteristic temperature reversal (cold feels hot and vice versa), and tingling and numbness of extremities. These symptoms can last for days or months. Caused by toxins produced by algae and passed on to bottom-dwelling predator fish, such as amberjack, red snapper, and sea bass, caught near reefs in Florida, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, it is not destroyed by cooking.
  • Scombroid poisoning is an immediate reaction to a toxin produced by bacteria in fish that hasn't been refrigerated properly. It causes flushing, burning of the throat, itching, nausea, cramps, and vomiting and can lead to dangerously low blood pressure and difficulty breathing.
  • Vibrio poisoning is characterized by explosive, watery, or bloody diarrhea. The form found in raw oysters is the most dangerous and can cause fatal wound infections, but any poorly refrigerated shellfish, especially shrimp and mollusks, are risky.

Food Storage and PreparationIt's much easier to head off a food-borne illness than it is to suffer through it. Here are some prevention tips:

  • The maxim of food-borne illness prevention: Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Bacteria grow best at temperatures between 40 degrees Fahrenheit and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Don't let foods that can spoil sit at room temperature for more than two hours -- the longer it sits, the more organisms build up in the food.
  • Using hot, soapy water, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before and after you prepare food. Wash your hands after blowing your nose, sneezing, or coughing; using the bathroom or changing diapers; handling pets; and taking care of a sick person. Wash all utensils that touch raw meats and poultry in a dishwasher or with hot, soapy water. When you grill, never put cooked food back on a platter that held raw meat or poultry.
  • Don't thaw at room temperature. Plan ahead so you have enough time to defrost meat in the refrigerator. If you can't, thaw the meat in a closed plastic bag in a sink of cold water that you change every half-hour. Or thaw it in a microwave and cook it right away.
  • Cook hamburgers until the juices run clear and the meat is no longer pink in the middle. Use a meat thermometer to cook meats to safe temperatures.
  • Don't eat foods with visible mold, unless it is a hard cheese. Even then, cut around it with a generous margin. Don't sniff mold or stick your nose into a bag of moldy food. Throw the bags away.
  • All eggs should be refrigerated. Even hard-boiled eggs should not be left out for more than two hours; boiling them destroys their protective coating, so they are even more likely to go bad than raw eggs. Eat hard-boiled eggs within seven days of cooking them.
  • Realize you run a risk of salmonella if you eat raw eggs. That includes foods made with raw eggs like homemade eggnog, fresh Caesar salad dressing, fresh Hollandaise sauce, homemade French vanilla ice cream, and homemade mayonnaise. Everyone should steer clear of these, especially the very young, the very old, and those with compromised immune systems.
  • Use a wooden cutting board; research shows it may resist bacterial contamination. Wash it with hot, soapy water. Wash plastic cutting boards in the dishwasher to remove fat that clings to them. Replace both kinds of cutting boards when scarred or splintered.
  • Don't store easily perishable foods -- such as milk -- in the refrigerator door; it doesn't stay as cold as the interior of the refrigerator.
  • Do not drink straight from the milk carton; germs from your mouth will contaminate the contents.
  • Don't reuse leftover marinade; it's contaminated from the raw meat or poultry.
  • Cook or freeze fish and shellfish within one day of purchase.
  • Discard any clams or mussels that do not close tightly when tapped before cooking. Steer clear of any that don't open after cooking.
  • Avoid raw milk. It has been linked to numerous outbreaks of food-borne illness, with serious outcomes.
  • Throw out soft cheeses after a week; they can harbor Listeria organisms.
  • Store whole-wheat flour and brown rice in the refrigerator to discourage rancidity and bug infestation.
  • Don't cook your Thanksgiving turkey by the slow low-temperature method-the meat will not get hot enough to kill bacteria.
  • Never stuff a turkey the night before. And always remove the stuffing immediately after removing it from the oven. A turkey cavity provides just the right temperature for bacterial growth.

Making educated choices when selecting food, as well as preparing and storing it safely, can help reduce the risk of food-borne illness. Another aspect of food safety to consider is toxins: Are the things we add to our food safe? In the next section, we'll learn about what toxins are and what to avoid.This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Natural Food Toxins

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. The natural toxin aflatoxin is produced by molds growing on peanuts, corn and other nuts and grains in warm, humid silos.

In addition to choosing, preparing and storing food carefully, safe eating involves considering what goes into the food before you ever come into contact with it. Without even considering chemicals that may be added to preserve or prepare foods, we must pay attention to the chemicals that occur naturally in foods.

Many people worry about what is added to the foods we eat. While it's hard to argue against natural and organic, it's not always clear what that means. The word natural had a lot of cachet in the 1970s. It was perceived as referring to foods with no additives or added sugar.

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In reality, it meant little, and it still means little. There is no legal definition of the word natural. Perhaps that's because foods in their natural state contain many chemicals -- both good and bad. For instance, butter and sugar are natural, but you don't see anyone willing to hawk them as health foods.

To signify a diet based on real foods in their natural state, we prefer the term whole foods. However, not even all whole foods are always good for you. There are literally tens of thousands of toxins found naturally in foods -- by some estimates more than 10,000 times the number of man-made pesticides.

Aflatoxin. For the most part people don't worry about natural toxins because they can't do anything about them. That's not entirely true. A good example is aflatoxin, one of the more pervasive toxins. It's a known carcinogen in animals and most likely in humans, too. It's produced by molds that grow on peanuts, corn, and other nuts and grains that sit in warm, humid silos. There are government limits on the amount of aflatoxin that can end up in peanut butter. Most experts believe it is way too high. Fortunately, most peanut butter falls far below this limit, but fresh-ground peanut butters sold in health food stores tested rather high by Consumer's Union in past years. Name brands fared much better.

How can you avoid aflatoxin? You can't entirely. Even Consumer's Union concedes that eating peanut butter once every ten days poses a seven times higher risk of cancer than most pesticides, but you can reduce the risk. Don't eat peanut butter every day, or look for a mail-order brand (Walnut Acres is one) that is very low in aflatoxin levels. If you eat fresh peanuts in the shell, reject any that look dark, shriveled, discolored, or soft. If any nut or grain looks moldy or discolored, throw it out.

Solanine. Another natural toxin, solanine, is found in some potatoes. Your mother told you not to eat potatoes with a green tinge and to throw away sprouted potatoes, and she was right.

Hydrazines. Mushrooms, when eaten raw, are a source of potentially cancer-causing hydrazines. Because they're inactivated when cooked, this is a case where cooked is better than raw.

Psoralens. Produced in moldy celery, this relatively mild natural toxin can give you a skin rash when you're in the sun -- a reaction called photosensitivity.

There are many, many more natural toxins. You can't avoid them all. Simply eat a varied diet, without overdoing any one particular food. That way, one toxin cannot build up and hurt you. By spreading out your food choices you are, in effect, hedging your bets.

But what about non-natural elements added to food? In the past, additives have received a mixed reaction. On the next page, find out which are helpful, and which aren't.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Food Additives

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. BHA and BHT protect against rancidity infoods such as powdered drink mixes,cereals and instant potatoes.

Toxins may occur naturally, but some elements are added to foods during or after their production -- those are called additives, and they have a variety of uses and risks, including protecting and preserving food. However, pesticides are still considered by many to be a concern.

With all the research centered on fruits and vegetables these days, whole foods are finding a more mainstream audience than natural foods did in the 1960s and '70s. That was when additives reigned but were viewed with suspicion. Now, we know better. Some additives are helpful; some are harmful; some are harmful but too helpful to be banned.

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For the most part, though, additives are not the major problem pesticides are. Here's the lowdown on some common additives.

Aluminum compounds. You see these in breads and baked goods as a leavening agent. It makes some people nervous, because of the reputed link between aluminum and Alzheimer's disease. However, that link is generally disregarded, and even if legitimate, you get much more aluminum from the environment, antacids, and buffered aspirin.

BHA & BHT. The preservatives BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) protect against rancidity in many foods, including powdered drink mixes, cereals, instant potatoes, and shortenings. The two are often vilified in the same breath, although only BHT has been linked to cancer. Hold on before you panic, though. Studies show it can both cause and prevent cancer in animals, depending on the circumstances. The effect in humans is only speculative; indeed, many scientists feel it is safe. There's actually no evidence that BHA causes cancer. In fact, just the opposite may be true: BHA may have some of the same benefits as antioxidant nutrients.

Food dyes. Talk about controversy! Some dyes seem perfectly safe, but others have an all-too-deserved tattered image. Maraschino cherries seem to bear the brunt of all this, as red dyes continually cause concern. The latest in red dye fiascoes was with red dye #3. In 1989, it was banned in cosmetics such as lipstick, but inexplicably not in foods. The FDA may yet take action on this front.

Yellow dye #5, also called tartrazine, is another infamous coloring. For most people it is harmless, but a small number of people are allergic to it. That's not surprising since it's related to salicylic acid, otherwise known as aspirin. Fortunately for those who are allergic, manufacturers must now clearly state its presence on the label, not just list it under "artificial colors."

Gums. These aren't the chewing variety, but natural-source gums, which are valued for their ability to thicken foods, prevent separation of ingredients, and improve the consistency of texture in foods like pudding, ice cream, salad dressings, and baked goods. Commonly used gums include carrageenan (from seaweed known as Irish Moss), guar gum, gum tragacanth, gum arabic, locust bean gum, and xanthan gum. They improve what the food industry likes to call "mouth feel." Many are not only safe, but as soluble fibers, are beneficial to health. Guar gum has been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels.

Modified food starch. This garnered a bad rap years ago when baby foods were castigated for containing it. It's not that it's a dangerous additive, or at least it's never been proved to be. The problem is when it takes the place of more nutritious ingredients. The chemically modified corn or tapioca starch is indigestible, so it has no calories, and babies need all the nutritious calories they can get. It prevents caking and clumping in puddings, spaghetti sauce, and toddler foods, but it is no longer included in baby foods.

Mono- and diglycerides. These are really fats (related to triglycerides) added to give a smoother texture to foods, but they rarely add many calories to a product because they're used in very small amounts.

Nitrites (sodium nitrite). This is one of the few additives known to be harmful. It's added to processed luncheon meats like bologna and salami, as well as to hot dogs, bacon, and other cured meats. It does have a useful purpose: preventing the growth of the deadly Clostridium botulinum bacteria (the organisms that cause botulism). It also gives these meats their characteristic pink color. The problem is that the nitrite converts to cancer-causing nitrosamines in your body. Manufacturers have cut back to half the amount of nitrites used. Still, it's best not to get any nitrites, or at the very least, be sure to have a vitamin C-containing food along with nitrite-containing foods, for antioxidant protection.

Sulfites (sodium sulfite, bisulfite, metabisulfite). These are not used as extensively as they were years ago, but are still used to prevent browning of foods such as some dried fruits; some dried and frozen potatoes; and some "fresh" shrimp (if the ice they are stored on has sulfites). Sulfites are added to wine in addition to the sulfite that is produced naturally in wine. For most people, sulfites are not a problem, but for those who are allergic to it, even a small amount can be life threatening. Since 1988, all foods that have added sulfites must be clearly labeled.

Additives can be harmful or helpful, depending on the usage and type, so they have generally gained acceptance over the past few decades. However, much controversy still surrounds pesticides. In the next section, learn about what these chemicals are used for, what concerns they pose and how to minimize risk.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.

Food and Pesticides

©2006 Publications International, Ltd. Consumer demand for perfect fruit, such as ripe, round apples, introduced use of some dangerous pesticides, such as alar.

Additives can, in some cases, be a positive ingredient -- but some chemicals used in the produce growing process, called pesticides, can be quite bad for you. Pesticides are used to protect and enhance crops. But their harmful effects have caused a considerable amount of negative press in recent years.

The alar scare in apples brought it all home -- the fear that what we are spraying on our food to deter insects and organisms is poisoning us as well. Sometimes, it's not even in the name of preserving crops from damage, but merely to make produce look better. The fault for that lies exclusively with us. Yes, us. It is consumers who will only buy the best-looking produce, with no wormholes, torn leaves, green in their oranges, or less than perfectly shiny red apples; we drive the demand for such pesticides.

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The Organic Revolution

"Natural" may be a slowly dying concept, but "organic" is becoming a mainstay in supermarkets. Fortunately, certification organizations have aided the difficult task of knowing what's organic and what's not. Even the government has attempted to enter the fray.

With reports of the numbers of pesticides lurking on your fruits and vegetables, and the revelation that washing and even peeling won't get rid of all of it, the simple solution seems to be stop eating fruits and vegetables. Bad move. The disease prevention benefits fruits and vegetables offer far outweigh any risks they pose from the pesticides they harbor.

The best advice is to eat a wide variety of both fruits and vegetables. This cuts down on your exposure to any one pesticide. Heed the following tips for further protection:

  • Wash all fruits and vegetables; scrub with a vegetable brush (not raspberries, of course). Use a very dilute solution of dishwashing liquid in water.
  • If you can afford only a few of your vegetable purchases to be organic, make it the root vegetables you buy, like carrots, rutabagas, and turnips. They accumulate more pesticides than others when grown conventionally. Otherwise, trim an inch off the root end; that's where most of the pesticides concentrate.
  • Peel your produce, especially if waxed, as apples, cukes, and eggplants often are. You'll lose some fiber, of course, but not most of it, and though some pesticides penetrate into the interior, you'll be rid of whatever remains on the peel. (The nonabsorbable wax itself is considered harmless, but it's usually mixed with a fungicide you'd rather avoid.)
  • In the same vein, discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables.
  • Buy locally whenever possible; waxes are less likely to be used.
  • West-coast grown produce usually requires less fungicide than produce grown in the humid East.
  • Avoid imported produce as much as possible; it's typically higher in pesticide residues.

Susan Male Smith, M.A., R.D., is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant who specializes in consumer health writing. She is assistant editor of the newsletter Environmental Nutrition and writes the "Food News" column in Family Circle magazine. Her writing has also appeared in Redbook, McCall's, American Health, and Women's Health Advisor.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.