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Nutrition: How to prevent foodborne illness during the holidays

Some of our loved ones including young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, need to be particularly cautious.

Salmonella outbreak in raw food
Bacterial culture plate with chicken meat at the background
Getty Images / iStockphoto
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On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love gave to me … a bad case of foodborne illness.

We often think about food safety during the hot summer months when outdoor picnics and potlucks abound. However, the colder months do not mean we are safe from foodborne illnesses. This holiday season serve up tasty treats and family favorites without a side of gastrointestinal distress, dehydration and a potential need for medical treatment.

First, invest in a food thermometer. This is an indispensable kitchen tool that is important year-round. Cooking foods to the safe minimum internal temperature will kill harmful germs that can cause illness. Remember that chicken, turkey, hotdishes and leftovers should all be cooked to reach an internal temperature of at least 165 degrees Fahrenheit. Cuts of beef, bison, pork, and lamb on the other hand, should be cooked to 145 degrees Fahrenheit and allowed to rest for 3 minutes before serving. Check out foodsafety.gov for a complete list of recommended cooking temperatures.

Similarly, the way foods are stored can have a big impact on the growth of harmful germs. Keep foods out of the “temperature danger zone” to minimize bacterial growth. The “danger zone” is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees and is the range where bacteria grow most rapidly. The temperature in your fridge should be 40 degrees or less and the freezer should be at or below 0. If you, like many of us, run out of fridge space this time of year, and decide to use the deck or garage for those overflowing delicacies, be mindful that the temperature stays below 40 to lessen the risk. Don’t forget to securely cover foods to avoid unwanted additions.

While a taste of the sugar cookie dough is tempting, there are multiple reasons to avoid nibbling while you cut out cookies. First, raw eggs are a common carrier of harmful bacteria. Many home bakers have known this for years. Using pasteurized eggs is an easy switch for a safer dough. The second and less commonly known reason to avoid eating raw doughs is uncooked flour. Flour has increasingly been the culprit of foodborne illness outbreaks in recent years. There are countless articles on the internet about “heat treating” flour to kill potentially harmful bugs. However, food safety experts warn that these methods do not guarantee elimination of contaminants so waiting until cookies are out of the oven is your safest bet.

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While raw baked goods may be on your radar, it is also important to be aware of other festive dishes that may contain raw eggs. Eggnog, tiramisu, hollandaise sauce, and Caesar dressing traditionally contain eggs, which may not be cooked to a high enough temperature to kill bacteria. Pasteurized eggs should be used instead to avoid a less than happy holiday season.

Some of our loved ones including young children, older adults, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women, need to be particularly cautious. In addition to the steps noted above, be on the lookout for raw or unpasteurized milk and soft cheeses, as well as raw or unpasteurized juice and cider, and undercooked or refrigerated smoked seafood. Let guests know if you are serving these foods or find alternatives to keep everyone healthy this holiday season.

Lastly, and most importantly, wash your hands! Yes, we have all heard this time and time again. Many people feel like hand washing experts after living through a global pandemic, but no matter where the COVID case numbers are at, hand washing is the No. 1 way to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy.

Consider this your annual reminder that even though your great aunt Suzy never followed these recommendations and was as healthy as a horse, it’s not worth the risk of a hospital trip this holiday season. Here’s to a happy, healthy and food safe holiday season for all!

Cherne, Mary.jpg
Mary Cherne Schoenfelder.
Contributed / St. Luke's

Mary Cherne Schoenfelder is a clinical dietitian at St. Luke's.

Related Topics: NUTRITIONST. LUKE'S
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