Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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The dark and dirty side of cooking shows

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Oh hi. Sorry for the hiatus. I went on vacation and then I didn’t really feel like blogging. I’m still not sure that I do, to be honest. It kind of feels like an obligation. I’m much more fired-up about the Ontario budget that was released last week and the sense of impending doom accompanying the fall federal election than I am about anything nutrition. However, I have been thinking about a topic for a little while, and that’s food safety.

I was watching the Big Family Cooking Showdown on Netflix – which I highly recommend by the way, especially season two – and was disturbed by some of the lack of hygiene that I saw. There were people with long hair that wasn’t tied back, people fixing their hair and not washing their hands after, people crying and wiping their eyes and noses with their hands and then continuing to cook. Not to mention the few times when foods, including meat, were served not fully cooked. Now, these aren’t professional chefs, they’re just home cooks, but I still feel like the producers should have ensured that safe food handling practices were followed.

On a similar note, a recent study found that there is inadequate food safety information provided in many Canadian cookbooks. Considering that most cookbook authors are not food safety experts this really doesn’t come as a huge surprise. I think that either they themselves lack the food safety knowledge required to impart that information on the readers or they simply assume that these things are common knowledge. Unfortunately, given the lack of food literacy in the general population (consider the recent hullabaloo about people eating undercooked chicken fingers) I don’t think it’s safe to assume that safe food handling practices are common knowledge. To be fair, where do we think people are learning this information? Not in schools where mandatory home economics were cancelled in Ontario (and most other provinces) in the 1990s. Not at home where the majority of parents are no longer cooking meals for the family most nights of the week.

So, what’s the big deal? Why was I grossed out by the behaviours of some of the contestants on the cooking show? Why am I possibly never attending another potluck in my life? It’s because these unsafe food handling practices can make you sick. Health Canada estimates that between 11 and 13 million Canadians suffer from foodborne illness each year. The majority of these cases are linked to foods prepared at home, not from restaurants.

While I am not a food safety expert, I have completed food handler training and I regularly teach the basics at cooking classes. Here are a few of the most common unsafe food practices I see:

  • Food is left unrefrigerated for too long. This may be someone grocery shopping and leaving perishables in their car while they run other errands or people leaving leftovers out overnight. Foods that need to be refrigerated (such as meat, fish, poultry, tofu, dairy products, and prepared mixed dishes) should be refrigerated within two hours. Left out in the “danger zone” (i.e. room temperature) for longer than that can allow any bacteria present to multiply to levels that may make you sick.
  • Cross contamination. People use the same cutting board and knife for raw meat and then veggies, meat is stored on the top shelf in the fridge, hands are not washed thoroughly after handling raw meat. Use separate cutting boards for raw meat and veg or ensure that you prepare ready-to-eat foods first and cut-up your meat last. As for hand washing…
  • People don’t wash their hands often enough or thoroughly enough. I think everyone knows that they should wash their hands after they use the bathroom and before they begin preparing food. However, I see people touching their cellphones, hair, faces, pets, etc. and then continuing to cook without washing their hands. All of these things (yes, even your face and hair) are covered in bacteria that have the potential to make you sick. Always wash your hands after touching anything other than the food and cooking tools, or after handling raw meat, fish, or poultry. Proper hand washing means wetting your hands first, then lathering for about 20 seconds (make sure you get your thumbs, between your fingers, and around your nails!), rinsing, and drying your hands, and not turning off the tap with your now clean hands (use paper towel or a hand towel for this).
  • Meat is not fully cooked. Did you know that you can’t tell if meat is properly cooked just by looking? Get yourself a probe thermometer and take the temperature to ensure that it’s hot enough all the way through to have killed the bacteria. Some meat is okay to serve a pink inside (like a steak) other meat is not (like chicken or hamburger – don’t @ me).
  • Tasting the food using the stirring spoon and then continuing to use that spoon to cook. Nobody wants your slobber in their food! If you want to taste while you’re cooking (which is definitely a good idea to ensure you’re getting the seasonings right) take a clean spoon, use it to scoop up a taste, then wash that spoon.
  • Not washing raw vegetables and fruit. You don’t know where they’ve been before they made it to your kitchen. There may have been bugs and manure on them at the farm, all of the hands that have handled them from the farm to the distribution centre to the store. Think of how many people you see fondling tomatoes and putting them back, or dropping one on the grocery store floor. Do you think they all washed their hands thoroughly after using the bathroom? You don’t need those fruit and vegetable washes. Just running water and friction; rub them with your hands under the running water. Even if you’re peeling them, if you’re cutting through the peel, you should wash them first. Otherwise, anything that was on the outside will be dragged down through the inside by the knife.

It’s one thing if you want to take the risk of eating unsafe food yourself. Perhaps you won’t follow all of these rules yourself (although you really should). It’s a whole different matter when you’re making food for other people. Please heed safe food handling practices! For more on food safety checkout Fight Bac!


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A little nitpicking in pursuit of scientific literacy

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I was reading this article a couple of weeks ago and was bothered by a couple of minor errors. The article’s kind of all over the place so I wasn’t even sure that I would bother blogging about it but since, as I type this, I’m at the airport waiting for my delayed flight to arrive I figured that I may as well.

Issue #1:

In 2015, nearly 13% of U.S. households experienced food insecurity (the current term for “hunger”). Many more are forced to rely on poor-quality foods that lead to obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Well, actually food insecurity is much more complex than “hunger” and people who cannot afford adequate, nutritious food very often fall into that group of people experiencing food insecurity. For a nice concise one-pager about food insecurity, check out this factsheet from Dietitians of Canada. Also, obviously, just because someone is hungry doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re experiencing food insecurity. Food insecurity is a result of inadequate income; not a strenuous workout or a light lunch.

Issue #2:

none of the flour available to consumers is ground from GMO grains.

While genetically modified wheat is not commercially available, corn flour would often be produced from GM corn. Many gluten-free flours contain ingredients such as sugar beets that are genetically modified.

Issue #3:

Gluten-free is very popular right now, but even if you are one of the 1% of Americans with celiac disease, marketers are fooling you. Whole Foods sells “gluten-free” baby shampoo. First, please don’t eat baby shampoo. Second, gluten is a protein found in wheat. Meats, cheeses and personal care products don’t normally have wheat in them.

Actually, many shampoos and other personal care products do contain wheat. For children who have celiac disease or who are following a ketogenic diet for epilepsy, their doctors may advise parents to ensure all such products are gluten-free to err on the side of caution. Kids are curious, many of them will put soap in their mouths, or eat shampoo bubbles. I don’t think making cautious parents feel foolish is helpful. Maybe that’s just me though. Whole meats and cheeses do not contain gluten but breadings or sauces may contaminate these foods, pre-shredded cheese may have flour added to prevent clumping, and some cheeses are cultured on gluten-containing grains.

Aside from these issues, I agree with the author’s assertion that food-borne illness is a real concern. I think that this will continue to grow as we see a decreasing number of manufacturers producing an increasing amount of our food. We should also avoid food fads and endeavour to improve our scientific literacy.

 


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Why McDonald’s hipster cafe is a scary development

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Did you know that McDonald’s is running a “hipster” café called The Corner in Australia? Apparently, after failed attempts to add more nutritious items to the regular McDonald’s menu, McDonald’s has decided to make the effort to capture the more health-conscious consumer by starting a new operation.

It’s difficult to say whether or not the food actually is more nutritious than the traditional McDonald’s fare. They don’t have the nutrition information posted online and seem only to have a facebook page. According to reviewers in this article the food is more upscale than that at McDonald’s. However, it still has that mass manufactured quality to it. Nothing truly artisan about it.

Okay, so without knowledge of the nutrition information, what’s my issue with this Corner Café? You know I must have an issue with it or I wouldn’t be blogging about it! My issue is the domination of our food industry by just a few players.

In grocery stores we see more and more small, quality, ethical companies being purchased by the giants. Starbucks is notorious for swooping in, saturating markets, and edging out the competition. We have Monsanto controlling most of the seeds used to grow our food. McDonald’s is already the most ubiquitous “restaurant” in the world. Now we have them masquerading as a local coffee shop. Allowing giant companies to own (read: control) our food is a dangerous road that we’re already pretty far down.

When there aren’t enough players in the game prices can be driven-up and quality can be neglected. We also run the risk of disaster if something happens along the food supply chain if everything’s coming from one place.

Maybe I’m being alarmist; maybe not. Personally, I’d rather err on the side of caution and support a local café rather than McDonald’s.


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How important are the enzymes in your food?

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This headline: Cancer fighting with food caught my eye. As did the preview in my Google alert:

Eat as much raw food as you can, because anything you cook over 116 degrees is devoid of enzymes, which are necessary for breaking downfood so …

Reading through the article I realised that there was a lot more that I could address. However, I don’t feel like spending hours writing a super long post so I’m only going to address the initial statement that caught my eye.

There are pros and cons to both raw and cooked food. I’d like to think that it goes without saying that cooking meat (eggs, fish) and heating milk (aka pasteurization) is important for food safety, but it’s never wise to make assumptions. Yes, cooking can destroy certain nutrients, vitamin C is notoriously easily destroyed by cooking (1). However, the article’s not talking about vitamins here, it’s talking about enzymes.

The statement is a little puzzling to me. The enzymes contained in foods are not the same as our digestive enzymes. No matter the method of preparing food, most healthy people will release digestive enzymes to aid in the breakdown of food into particles small enough for absorption. These enzymes include amylases to breakdown starches, lipases to breakdown fats, and proteases to breakdown proteins. Yes, some foods such as papaya and pineapple contain the enzymes papain and bromelain, respectively, which both breakdown proteins. Protip: this is why your chicken stored with pineapple salsa will be mush when you reheat it. Aside from that, the enzymes in plant foods are proteins used in plant processes, not in our digestive processes.

There may be some benefits to consuming plant-based enzymes but there is currently no evidence to support a raw food diet for optimal nutrition and there is certainly no reason to expect that the enzymes in foods will aid with your digestion of them. In addition, it’s well-known that cooking can actually increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients. Cooking tomatoes makes lycopene (a carotenoid that may provide a number of health benefits, not least of which, reducing risk of prostate cancer) more available to us. Cooking spinach and other leafy greens makes the lutein (an antioxidant important for eyesight) in them more available for us to absorb.

The key here, as always, is variety. There are pros and cons to both raw and cooked vegetables eating an assortment of both is ideal.

Let’s also not forget that enjoyment is important as well. Eating is not just about obtaining nutrients. It’s also a pleasurable activity. I prefer raw carrots but cooked mushrooms. It’s far better to consume a vegetable in a manner you enjoy it than to not consume it at all.


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Children of the Quorn

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I found this post by CSPI (the Centre for Science in the Public Interest) calling for the ban of Quorn products in the US a little puzzling.

For those wondering, apparently Quorn is a “vat grown fungus” used in vegetarian meat product substitutes. Yes, I know, it sounds revolting to us omnivores. Personally, I think that plants (and I suppose fungi) should be proud to be themselves and not masquerade as meat. Putting that aside, apparently it’s quite popular. It’s not available in Canada because the CFIA has not tested, and therefore, not approved it for sale, as far as I can tell.

The FDA has approved the sale of Quorn products in the US but, based on reports of allergic reactions, the CSPI is calling for retailers to stop selling Quorn and for people who have experienced allergic reactions to report them to CSPI. If Quorn is toxic then, yes, it should not be sold. However, I can’t quite comprehend limiting the sale of a food simply because some people are allergic to it. Why not call for grocery stores to stop carrying peanut butter, soy, scallops, or any other common allergen?

Consumers should be aware that consuming Quorn may cause them to have an adverse reaction. They can make their own decisions from there. Unless there is more reason than this to believe that Quorn poses a significant risk, I say let the vegetarians eat their Quorn.