Avoiding foodborne illness

Many of us prepare and store food on a daily basis – and manage to steer clear of foodborne illness (also known as food poisoning). But are you avoiding trouble by skill or by chance? Brush up on the following tips and rule out some hazards in the kitchen.

Storing goods
Keep pantry items (such as packages of cereal or pasta) in sealed containers on a clean, dry shelf at a temperature of no more than 38ºC (100ºF). Keep the pantry clean and make sure no food spills or sits on the floor. Maintain your fridge temperature below 4ºC (40ºF) and your freezer temperature below -18ºC (0ºF) – this will help avoid spoilage. Place raw meat and fish in a container or generously sized bowl on the bottom shelf of the fridge so that juices cannot spill or drip onto other food. This helps prevent contamination in the fridge. So does regular cleaning of the fridge and freezer.

Storing eggs? Keep them in their original carton and not in the egg tray in the door (which won't keep them cold enough). If you crack an egg by accident, move it to a covered container in the fridge and use it within four days. Otherwise, discard it.

Refrigerate leftovers within two hours of cooking, and store them in shallow containers or sealed freezer bags so that the food cools evenly and quickly. You can safely keep leftovers in the fridge for up to four days.

Working with food
Wash your hands! Always wash your hands before and after handling raw food. Using warm water, make sure to lather your hands with soap for at least 30 seconds, and don't forget to thoroughly wash your thumbs and in between your fingers.

Remove rings and bracelets before handling raw food. As well, keep counter-tops and sinks clean and disinfect them regularly. Don't forget to sanitize high-traffic areas such as taps or the refrigerator and oven doors. When slicing and dicing, reserve one cutting board for raw meat and fish only – preferably a plastic one, as it can then be cleaned in the dishwasher. Launder dishcloths and kitchen towels often. And don't forget to wash your can opener every time you use it.

Shopping smart
Approach shopping with a strategic plan. With the large size of many supermarkets today, it can often take quite a while to make your way through the aisles. Therefore, select your freezer and refrigerator items last so that they stay as cold (and safe) as possible. Go directly home with your groceries or otherwise use a cooler and ice packs. Once home, remember to put the perishable items away first.

When choosing canned goods, avoid cans that are dented or leaking. Check egg cartons to ensure that all the eggs are clean and intact – never buy eggs that are dirty or cracked – and remember to check the "best before" date.

In general, when looking at "best before" dates, keep in mind that this is the date until which the manufacturer claims that the unopened goods will keep their wholesomeness, taste, and nutritional value provided that the food is stored appropriately. At the same time, given that "best before" dates do not guarantee the safety of the food, use your common sense and discard it if you have any doubts. If the "best before" date has passed, know that the quality of the food may have decreased, and again, use cautious judgment.

Eating when you're not well

It's always important to fuel your body with nutrition, and this is even more critical if you live with chronic illness. When faced with a cold, many of us put our faith in orange juice or chicken soup. But what can we do to help our bodies cope with long-term illness?

Chances are, if you've been diagnosed with a long-term illness, you've been to see many doctors. You may have been given instructions on specific rules of diet. The following are general suggestions to boost your nutrition intake and your immune system. Make sure you still follow your doctor's advice regarding diet. If you haven't been given any specific information regarding diet and your particular condition, speak to your doctor or pharmacist. They may be able to help or may put you in touch with a dietician.

  • If you feel up to it, eat well-balanced regular meals. Your body needs as much as help as it can get – try to make the most of every meal.
  • If you feel too ill to eat meals, try to take in small amounts (such as fruit or yogurt) over the course of the day. Remember to vary the foods you eat, to give your body different types of nutrition.
  • Cook ahead. If you experience good days and bad days, prepare extra food on days when you do cook, and then freeze some for the times when you can't prepare a meal. Try keeping your freezer stocked with frozen fruit and vegetables for the times you can't make it to the grocery store for fresh produce. Or enlist friends and family to help you keep your fridge and freezer filled with groceries or prepared meals. Many grocery delivery options also exist – via your supermarket directly, or through special delivery companies. Find out what's available in your area.
  • Know the dietary needs for your condition. For example, many diseases such as hepatitis C or HIV/AIDS involve nausea and diarrhea. This may require you to drink extra fluids, take nutritional supplements, or find bland foods that don't upset your system. Consult your doctor for specific advice.
  • Keep an eye on your weight. If you're having trouble eating, you may lose weight. Find out what body weight you should maintain and see your doctor if you're having problems.
  • Take care in the kitchen. If your body is already weakened, one of the last things you need is a foodborne illness! Always wash your hands before and after handling food, and make sure you prepare and store food safely. For more information, see "Avoiding foodborne illness" in this health feature.

Nutritional labelling: get to know it

Do you read the nutrition labels on the food you buy? They can help inform your decisions.

In Canada, manufacturers are required to include certain information on food packaging to inform consumers about the contents of their products. Together, this information can assist you in comparing products and making the healthiest choices for you and your family.

There is always a list of all ingredients in descending order, from the ingredient used most to the one used least. Watch carefully for fats, sugars, and salts, as they appear in various forms. They may be listed under other names, or may be present in ingredients that contain them.

Instead of "fat," you may see:

  • lard
  • shortening
  • oils (palm, coconut, hydrogenated vegetable)
  • monoglycerides and/or diglycerides
  • tallow

Instead of "sugar," you may see:

  • honey
  • molasses
  • anything that ends in "ose" (dextrose, sucrose, fructose, maltose, lactose)
  • dextrin or maltodextrin
  • syrups

Instead of "salt," you may see:

  • MSG
  • sodium
  • baking soda
  • baking powder
  • brine
  • kelp
  • soy sauce

As you start to read ingredient lists, familiarize yourself with any words you don't recognize. You'll quickly learn to distinguish which ingredients are more desirable than others.

In addition to the ingredients, look for the Nutrition Facts label – this details the ingredients of the product as well as the nutritional contents and any health claims made by the manufacturer. The Nutrition Facts label will also explain the number of calories in a serving, as well as the amount of nutrients. Health Canada requires manufacturers to report on 13 specific nutrients (though manufacturers may include more). These required nutrients are:

  • fat
  • saturated fat
  • trans fats
  • cholesterol
  • sodium
  • carbohydrate
  • fibre
  • sugars
  • protein
  • calcium
  • iron
  • vitamin A
  • vitamin C

The label will show not only the amount of these nutrients present, but what the amount represents in terms of daily needs within a healthy diet. This helps to put some perspective on what you're reading.

Finally, keep in mind that manufacturers are allowed to make some health claims about their products. It's worth knowing that these statements are strictly regulated by Health Canada, and must meet approved criteria. Health claims may either draw attention to a nutritional aspect of the product, or advocate one or more of the following currently scientifically recognized links between diet and health:

  • A diet low in saturated and trans fat reduces risk of heart disease.
  • A diet with adequate calcium and vitamin D, and regular physical activity, reduces risk of osteoporosis.
  • A diet rich in vegetables and fruit reduces risk of some types of cancer.
  • A diet low in sodium and high in potassium reduces risk of high blood pressure.

Organic basics

What does the term "organic" mean? Will eating organic foods boost your health?

The term "organic" denotes a method or philosophy of growing food that is sustainable and friendly to the environment. The general idea is to produce as much food as the local farm environment (or farm ecosystem) can support while at the same time not threatening the health or diversity of any plant or animal populations within that ecosystem.

A major concern in organic farming is to maintain the fertility and renewability of the soil. This is achieved through different practices such as crop rotations, inter-cropping, and use of green manure (plants that are grown for the sole purpose of being returned to the soil as a high-nutrient fertilizer).

Other focal points of organic farming include:

  • protecting the environment
  • protecting the biological diversity of the ecosystem
  • recycling and conserving resources
  • promoting the health of livestock (through techniques such as adequate housing, prohibition of synthetic hormones or food additives, and reduction of stress)
  • maintaining the integrity of the food through to point of sale (e.g., organic foods may not be irradiated [a process used to kill bacteria and parasites])

While there's much to know about organic products, it's important to keep in mind that the term refers to principles of agriculture. It does not have any claims specific to the health, nutrition, or safety of the food.

In Canada, the standards for organic production are enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Demand for organic food is increasing, and there are national regulations for organic standards and a certification program, including requirements for labelling standards. Such measures assure consumers that all foods sold under this designation are indeed in compliance with the term "organic." For further information on these standards, www.inspection.gc.ca.