I just plain love food.
To me, it's so much more than fuel that keeps us going. For one thing, it's so sensual: Choosing, cooking and eating appeals to all the senses -- taste, obviously, but also sight, smell, touch, even sound. It's also communal, the moment when family, and sometimes friends, gather and visit. We pause. We talk. We argue. We laugh.
So, let's talk about this important aspect of our lives. As you know, there are real health hazards to be found in the kitchen. But they can be prevented simply and naturally. You just have to know where to start and how to keep bacteria, microbes and toxic chemicals at bay.
We'll take a look at the top priorities -- from the food you buy, to preparation techniques, to the kitchen products you use.
Cross-contamination plays an important role in the transmission of food-borne illness. Research shows that dish-washing doesn't get the whole job done in preventing the spread of bacteria. A good general rule is to use two cutting boards, one for raw meat and a different one for the rest of your food. Other important ways to prevent the food-borne illnesses is to keep kitchen cloths and sponges clean, and to wash your hands with warm, soapy water for 20 seconds before and after handling raw meat (and its packaging). Many cooking specialists recommend using bleach to sanitize countertops after food prep. I say skip it and use vinegar instead. Vinegar is an effective natural disinfectant, and even kills both salmonella and E. coli, making it a valuable sanitizer in the kitchen.
Long ago and far away -- okay, actually not even 100 years ago -- all farming was organic farming. Farmers used manures and nitrogen-building cover crops to increase fertility, rotated crops and tilled the soil to cut down weeds. The development of inorganic fertilizers (principally ammonium nitrate) as well as insecticides, herbicides and fungicides after World War II transformed agriculture worldwide. There is no question that, especially in the most desperately poor parts of the world, it brought food to millions. But now we're seeing the hidden costs of today's conventional farming. All those toxic chemicals go straight into our bodies and also into our soil, streams and oceans to disrupt our endocrine systems, and they can lead to cancer. Am I saying you shouldn't eat fruits and veggies unless they're organic? No way. Just make sure you make sensible choices when you can -- like when you're home -- and make them within the confines of your budget. Spend your organic dollars wisely and buy organic fruit and vegetables which are normally most affected by pesticides.
Microban is a "proprietary" combination of chemicals that sometimes contains Triclosan. It's commonly added to kitchen product and school supplies to control microbial growth, stains and odors. You might be surprised to know that Microban can be found in everything from cutting boards to knives and sink drainers. The problem is that we don't really know what Microban is, and most companies won't disclose which antimicrobial agent is being used for those products. Don't be lured in by advertising gimmicks -- you have a right to know whether a potentially toxic chemical has been covertly added to the products you buy. So if you can't confirm which antimicrobial is being used, just don't buy it.
Teflon is one of those areas where there are troubling signs, but no clear proof. For much of their production history, nonstick coatings have been produced with substances called "fluorochemical polymers." As a result of the manufacturing process, these nonstick coatings also contain measurable levels of a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The EPA has identified PFOA as "likely" to cause cancer in humans, but also concluded that there wasn't enough information to assess the risk levels for humans. And yet, research released this year has linked PFOA to lower birth weight with prenatal exposure and even infertility. Where does that leave you and me in the meantime? Holding a hot frying pan. Here's my recommendation: Consider trading your nonstick pans for cast iron, glass or a newer PFOA-free pan. If you're not in a place to do that right now, just be careful not to overheat your Teflon pans and replace them as soon as the nonstick surface begins to peel.
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