Eat Well and Be Safe This Summer

It’s July, and the temperature and your dinner are sizzling! Americans love to barbecue, especially in the summer. It’s the season for burgers, dogs, barbecued chicken, and ribs, corn on the cob and every type of salad and dessert known to man.

If you’re a barbeque and picnic lover, the last thing in the world you want to hear is another warning about the perils of charcoal- or grill-cooked food.  But there’s a reason for these warnings, and there are a variety of safety tips, compromises, healthier alternatives and choices you can make to ensure good summer eating and improved nutritional wellness.

There’s a science to cooking outdoors. Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are chemicals formed when meat, including beef, pork, fish, and poultry is cooked using high-temperature methods, such as pan frying or grilling directly over an open flame. The formation of HCAs and PAHs is influenced by the type of meat, the cooking time, the cooking temperature, and the cooking method.

HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat. PAHs can also be formed during other food preparation processes, such as smoking of meats.

Exposure to high levels of HCAs and PAHs have been shown to cause cancer in animals. Currently, no Federal guidelines address consumption levels of HCAs and PAHs formed in meat. HCA and PAH formation can be reduced by avoiding direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface, reducing the cooking time, and using a microwave oven or standard oven to partially cook meat before exposing it to high temperatures.

HCAs are not found in significant amounts in foods other than meat cooked at high temperatures. PAHs can be found in other charred foods, as well as in cigarette smoke and car exhaust fumes.

We can reduce our exposure to these potentially damaging chemicals through several cooking methods:

  • When possible, avoid direct exposure of meat to an open flame or a hot metal surface and avoid prolonged cooking times (especially at high temperatures).
  • Use a microwave or standard oven to pre-cook meat prior to exposure to high temperatures. This can substantially reduce HCA formation by reducing the time that meat must be in contact with high heat to finish cooking.
  • Continuously turn meat over on a high heat source to reduce HCA formation, compared with just leaving the meat on the heat source without flipping it often.
  • Remove charred portions of meat, such as the skin from chicken, and refrain from using gravy made from meat drippings, which also contain HCA and PAH.
  • Consider steaming fish and vegetables in foil, rather than grilling over an open flame.

Proper refrigeration and cooling prevents deadly contaminants

Keeping perishables properly refrigerated and stored helps limit opportunities for bacteria to form, but it’s only one of several steps you should be taking regularly to limit exposure, protect your food, and protect yourself, your family and guests from getting sick.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) says that one in six Americans gets sick from eating contaminated food, and there are at least a thousand reported outbreaks of potentially deadly Salmonella and E. coli infections annually. Overall, the CDC estimates that between 6 million and 33 million are affected by food-borne illnesses each year, resulting in at least 9,000 fatalities. The reason the numbers vary so much is that many cases are never reported as food-borne. Salmonella infections cause more hospitalizations and deaths than any other type of germ found in food, and $365 million in direct medical costs annually.

Follow these tips to reduce the risk of food poisoning at home:

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and dry them before handling food and after handling raw foods (meat, fish, eggs and vegetables), after touching the garbage pail, going to the toilet, blowing your nose, or touching animals (including pets).
  2. Wash worktops before and after preparing food, particularly after they’ve been touched by raw meat, including poultry, raw eggs, fish and vegetables. You don’t have to use anti-bacterial sprays. Hot soapy water is fine.
  3. Wash dishcloths and dish or hand towels regularly and let them dry before you use them again. Dirty, damp cloths are the perfect place for bacteria to breed.
  4. Use separate chopping boards for raw food and for ready-to-eat food. Raw foods can contain harmful bacteria that can spread very easily to anything they touch, including other foods, worktops, chopping boards and knives. Less porous materials, like glass, are less likely to become contaminated than wood or plastic.
  5. It’s especially important to keep raw meat away from ready-to-eat foods such as salad, fruit and bread. This is because these foods won’t be cooked before you eat them, so any bacteria that get on to the foods won’t be killed.
  6. Always cover raw meat and store it on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator where it can’t touch other foods or drip on to them.
  7. Cook food thoroughly and check that it’s piping hot all the way through. Make sure poultry, pork, burgers, sausages and kebabs are cooked until steaming hot, with no pink meat inside. Learn to use a meat thermometer to verify cooking temperature.
  8. Keep your fridge temperature below 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 Celsius), and your freezer temperature below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, preferably closer to zero. By keeping food cold, you stop germs that cause food poisoning from growing.
  9. If you have cooked food that you’re not going to eat straight away, cool it as quickly as possible (within 90 minutes) and store it in the fridge or freezer. Use any leftovers from the fridge within two days.
  10. Don’t eat food that’s past its “use by” date label. These are based on scientific tests that show how quickly harmful germs can develop in packaged food.

Finally, it’s important to keep many kinds of food cool to prevent germs from multiplying. Make sure you keep salads, dips, milk- or dairy-based products, sandwiches, and cooked meats cool. Don’t leave food out of the fridge for more than a couple of hours, and don’t leave food in the sun. Food poisoning and contamination are serious threats to your health all-year round, but simple attention to these details can help ensure healthier and happier eating.

Summer is a blast, and summer eating doesn’t have to be harmful if you eat everything in moderation and try to avoid those foods and preparation processes that are less healthy. Eat more seasonal fresh fruit and vegetables when at picnics, out, or at home. Avoid high-fat desserts high in sugar, or processed foods loaded with sodium, fat, and preservatives. You can eat healthfully AND enjoy delicious food in the summer . . . it just takes some compromise and planning.


 

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!