Protect yourself with these 7 tips for keeping food safe

Published: November, 2011

More and more, the joys of dining and cooking are diminished by the constraints of food allergies, sensitivities, and intolerances — not to mention news stories about serious food-borne illnesses. Whether or not you have allergies or intolerances, adopting a few good habits when you shop for food, prepare meals and snacks, and dine out can go a long way in ensuring that the foods you eat will be pleasurable and nourishing rather than a source of worry — and potential medical trouble.

1. Read labels

The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 requires manufacturers of all foods to name every ingredient that contains, or is derived from, one of the eight major allergens — milk, eggs, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, and soy — in plain English rather than in chemical terminology. This means that you no longer have to memorize a list of milk proteins or soy products. You can expect to see the name of the allergen in either of two places on food labels: in parentheses after the ingredient — for example, "casein (milk)" — or immediately following the list of ingredients — for example, "Contains milk."

However, the laws don't apply to cross-contamination during manufacturing. To cover this contingency, the FDA advises, but doesn't require, manufacturers to include statements like "may contain milk" or "produced in a facility that also processes milk." Nor has the FDA implemented the law's provision for "gluten-free" labeling because the agency is still grappling with the definition of "gluten-free." Until the FDA standards are established, you can't take "gluten-free" claims at face value. It's wise to print out a list of ingredients that contain gluten to match against food labels.

2. Divide and conquer

It's almost imperative to have two sets of cooking and serving implements if a person in your household has a food allergy or celiac disease, unless the rest of you are following the same nonallergenic or gluten-free diets. Keeping the food preparation for each group separate is the best way to avoid cross-contamination. You should also take care to store any allergenic or gluten-containing foods well away from the food reserved for the person who is living with food allergy or celiac disease. Also be aware that pet food often contains Salmonella, which may not faze the furry critters but may mean misery for members of your family, especially infants, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems — take precautions to avoid cross-contamination with pet foods and food for humans.

3. Control the temperature

Although appliance manufacturers claim that the temperature settings on refrigerators are accurate, refrigerator thermometers provide added insurance. There is a fairly narrow window in which foods can be safely chilled but not frozen. Bacteria are in a state of suspended animation at 32° F, but by the time the temperature climbs to 41° F they are coming alive, and at 60° F they're growing rapidly.

In cooking, it's not the oven temperature but the reading at the center of the food that is crucial. At 140° F, many bacteria die, but it takes a temperature of 165° F to ensure that they are eliminated entirely. Using a food thermometer to measure the temperature of cooked food is the only sure way to know that your roast or turkey has passed the danger zone.

4. Wash up

The common-sense habit — washing your hands before eating and after going to the bathroom — is as sound as ever. It's also a good practice after you walk the dog, clean the cat box, weed the garden, blow your nose, take out the garbage, change diapers, care for a sick person, or engage in any other activity that increases your exposure to bacteria and viruses. While there is usually no reason to wash after a friendly handshake, you may want to do so if an outbreak of gastroenteritis, which can be spread by casual contact, is afoot.

Remember, washing isn't just a cursory pass under a running water tap. Washing should consist of a vigorous rub with soap and water that includes wrists, palms and backs of the hands, the fingers, the skin between them, and the skin under the nails. This exercise, performed correctly, should take at least 20 seconds.

5. Don't overdo decontamination

Hand sanitizers have made it into millions of pockets and purses, and while they're a sensible substitute when soap and water are not available, they aren't meant to be used whenever you touch a handrail or greet a stranger. Nor is it necessary to decontaminate your kitchen with antibacterial cleansers or to dip your produce in antimicrobial food washes.

Several observational studies have implicated the increasingly antiseptic environment of industrialized nations in the growing prevalence of allergies. Why? Some researchers theorize that the developing immune system needs to experience enough of the microbes that constitute a genuine threat so it won't attack "innocent" molecules like pollen and food proteins.

6. Treat alcohol as a food

Not that you should pour beer on your breakfast cereal, but it's good to be aware that alcoholic beverages share many of the properties of food, including those that trigger illness. For example, alcoholic beverages contain histamines, and beer and wine have naturally occurring sulfites, which can trigger allergic-like reactions in people who are sensitive to those substances. Rye whiskies contain gluten, and most beers contain both gluten and wheat, so these can produce more than a hangover in people with wheat allergy, celiac disease, or gluten sensitivity. Alcohol also makes the intestine more permeable, which amplifies the effects of food sensitivity.

7. Don't be shy

If you have a food allergy or sensitivity and are dining out, don't hesitate to question restaurant staff about ingredients or even kitchen practices. If you are having dinner at the home of a friend or acquaintance, let the host know that there are certain foods you can't consume. Most cooks would rather have that information before planning the menu than discover it when they are about to serve a prized dish that a guest can't eat. Don't forget to inquire about all ingredients (for example, non-nut foods that may be prepared with peanut oil, if you have nut allergies).

As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.