Most of us have been there at one time or another, enjoying a great meal with friends or family only to wake that night with gut-wrenching stomach cramps, projectile vomiting, and explosive diarrhea — and sometimes all three at once. If you have no idea what we’re talking about, consider yourself fortunate, or just plain lucky, because food poisoning is becoming more common lately for a variety of reasons. And if youhave suffered from it, then you know there are very few illnesses with symptoms so intense, uncomfortable, (and sometimes even potentially fatal) as food poisoning.
Food poisoning outbreaks dominated headlines in 2018 and early 2019. And just recently the CDC went public with warnings of a new nationwide outbreak, this time due to onions. In fact, the CDC estimates that nearly50 million people get sick,130,000 are hospitalized, and over3,000 die from food-borne diseases each year in just the United States alone. That first number works out to 1 in every 6 people getting sick — that means on average over 135,000 people are contracting some form of food poisoningevery single day!
But what’s got the food industry most worried today is all the unexpected new sources of food poisoning we hadn’t seen in the past, that we have to watch for now. First, let’s take a look at what food poisoning is and why it causes you to become so sick. And then we'll share our top tips for preventing food-borne illnesses from affecting you and your family.
What Is Food Poisoning?
Food poisoning, frequently referred to as food-borne illness, doesn’t actually mean that you are being poisoned. It’s an illness that results from eating food that has been contaminated with an infectious organism — most commonly bacteria, viruses, parasites, or the toxins produced by these.
You’ve probably heard of these pesky infectious organisms, the most common bacteria and viruses that cause the most illnesses, hospitalizations, or deaths being:
- E. coli
Food Poisoning’s Frequent Flyers
The contamination that leads to food poisoning can happen at any point from harvest to service, including during processing, packaging, or preparing the food. Another major contributor to food poisoning is cross-contamination, such as when the harmful organism is transferred from one surface to another (like a contaminated unwashed cutting board or knife).
There are foods known as “frequent fliers” which are more commonly carriers of the bacteria and viruses which cause us to be sick. According to health experts, the top contributors to food poisoning include:
- Raw or Undercooked Poultry, often containingCampylobacter andSalmonella, which are commonly found in the fecal matter, guts, and feathers of birds, and can live until the poultry is well cooked (at least 165°F) and sometimes even beyond.
- Fish and Shellfish, especially if they haven’t been properly refrigerated and stored.
- Eggs, often a source ofSalmonella, especially if they are unpasteurized
- Deli Meats, especially hot dogs, bacon, salami, and ham; these are all prime candidates for contamination by Listeria andStaphylococcus aureus at several stages during processing and manufacturing.
It’s important to know that most food-borne pathogens result from what’s known as fecal pathogens. That’s right — bacteria and other microorganisms found infeces. This explains whyanimal proteins, and especially poultry, beef, pork, deli meats, and dairy products are among the leading causes of food poisoning.
However, it’s also important to note that animal products are not the only carriers of contaminants making us sick; several plant sources are also major contributors to food-borne illnesses. But wait! If most foodborne pathogens result from fecal contamination, and plants don’t excrete fecal matter, how can plants make us sick? Great question. You might not want to hear the real answer, but we know that eating foods contaminated with feces can make us very sick — and we are finding that when food poisoning hits, we are not just consuminganimal feces Yup, that’s right; it’s not uncommon for many cases of food poisoning to be traced back to E. Colitransmitted from poor sanitation of aperson charged with washing and packaging produce. In other words, he or she didn’t wash their hands after going to the bathroom, and that’s what made you sick. We know, it’s not fun to think about.
Surprising Sources of Food-Borne Illnesses
While we know the foods that frequently contribute to food poisoning, like eggs, raw or undercooked poultry, and seafood, there are also a number of other, lesser-known foods that contribute to the nearly 50 million cases of food poisoning each year. In fact, one of these little-known hosts accounts for nearly half of all food poisoning cases each year. And what’s even more surprising, is that it’s natural and a really important food for your health too. In fact, this food is so healthy, that it’s the one food that we recommend you eat at least twice every day! we’ll share what it is later in this article, but first, let’s look at some of the other, more surprising foods contributing to food poisoning today.
Yup, that container of take-out rice from last Friday’s take out that you’ve had sitting out on your kitchen counter for too long is a literal breeding ground for a specific type of bacteria known to produce toxins and cause severe gastrointestinal illness.
There are many foods, rice included, that naturally contain certain types of bacteria. What makes rice different from many of these foods is that rice naturally containsBacillus cereus, orB. cereus, a type of bacteria known to produce harmful toxins.
Preparing and eating rice with a meal does not cause a health concern; the bacteria is usually only present among dry rice in the form of spores. Boiling the rice during the cooking process takes care of the toxins and bacteria that can make us sick. However, leaving leftover rice out on the counter provides the ideal environment forB. cereusto rapidly reproduce, releasing harmful toxins along the way.
If knowingly eating food loaded with harmful bacteria and dangerous toxins isn’t enough to convince you to put your leftover rice in the refrigerator, consider thatB. cereus is known to cause two major types of illness: one producing severe diarrhea that can last between 5 and 15 hours, the other leading to stomach ache and vomiting that lasts anywhere from half an hour to 6 hours.
To decrease your risk of food poisoning from rice, serve it as soon as you cook it. Should you have leftovers, make sure you cool them as quickly as possible (waiting no longer than one hour), before storing it in your refrigerator. But don’t store it for longer than one day. The leftover rice can be reheated (only once) and really needs to be steaming hot all the way through to ensure bacteria and toxins have been destroyed and the rice is safe to eat.
Our regulars know that the Smarter Nutritional team is a huge fan of beans; especially black beans and kidney beans! Believe it or not, kidney beans, when not prepared properly, can make you sick —really sick. These beans can make you sick by causing a type of food poisoning. Although it’s not caused by a virus or bacteria, it can still make you extremely ill.
In fact, according to the FDA, beans, and especially kidney beans, are high in something known as phytohemagglutinin, which is a plant-based protein that can often act as a toxin. Phytohemagglutinin is so toxic that eating just 5 or 6 raw or undercooked kidney beans can cause severe nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Avoiding food poisoning from beans is easy enough, you just need to make sure you soak the beans in water for at least 5 hours and then boil them in a separate pot of water for a minimum of 30 minutes; or, you can do what we do andopt for canned, no-salt added, organic kidney beans.
Packaged Leafy Greens
Leafy greens like lettuce, spinach, and kale areamong the healthiest, most bioavailable natural foods on the planet,but they are also responsible for nearly half of the 50 million cases of food poisoning we see each year!
Here’s the craziest part — the contamination causing food poisoning from greens has nothing to do with the nutrient-packed vegetables themselves, but it has everything to do with how the greens are processed as they were harvested, cleaned, packaged and shipped out to grocery stores and restaurants.
So, what really happens is that bacteria, most commonly E.coli, is introduced through poor sanitation on the part of the food handler and preparer, and even though the greens are washed, the bacteria survive. Packaged greens, and greens in general, are mostly water, so the bacteria are then packed in a damp environment for distribution around the country. As it travels, the dangerous bacteria do their thing, reproducing and multiplying several times over. As you can imagine, over time the greens become contaminated with toxic and nearly undetectable bacteria that can cause us to get sick when we eat it.
Protecting Against Food-Borne Illness
With so much going on in the world today, the last thing you need to do is worry about one more thing — getting sick from your food! Well, don’t panic. While you can’t prevent all types of food poisoning, there are some simple steps you can take to minimize the risk to you and your family, including:
While we understand that you can’t buy everything from local merchants, there are plenty of opportunities to shop local to decrease your risk of food-borne illnesses, especially from vegetables.
Most food-borne illnesses stemming from leafy greens are caused by poor handling and made worse by the extended time from harvest to consumption — it gives bacteria extra time to multiply again and again. So, we recommend, whenever possible, buying all greens and as many vegetables as you can from local,organic sources. Organic produce is grown and harvested without chemicals, minimally processed, and not shipped all over the world. Not only are local, organic vegetables more nutrient-dense, they contain less chemicals andharmful pesticides and are much less likely to be contaminated with the harmful bacteria that can make you sick.
Prepare Only What You Need & Carefully Store Leftovers In The Fridge
Food poisoning often results from food sitting too long — either on the counter or in the fridge. To reduce your risk of illness, we recommend that you avoid over-prepping and prepare only the food you need for each meal. Understandably, that’s easier said than done, and especially true if you have a family or if you are trying to save time by cooking ahead and preparing meals for the week.
Should you have leftovers or need to cook ahead of time, make sure to store in food-safe, airtight containers and get them into the refrigerator as soon as possible. If you can’t freeze them, we recommend eating your leftovers within 2 to 3 days (and just one day for rice).
Boost Your Immune System with Probiotics and Vitamin D
The health of yourimmune system can be the difference between avoiding a food-borne illness and spending the next 8 hours hugging the toilet. It’s especially important to recognize that the majority of your immune system is found in your digestive tract; and probiotics play an integral role in keeping you safe from the harmful effects of several bacterial and viral-based pathogens, especially those responsible for food poisoning.
In past articles, we’ve written extensively about howimportant probiotics are fordigestion and for preventing chronic inflammation throughout your body, but they are also really important for keeping your gut healthy, your immune system strong, and your body safe from illness.
To make sure your gut has the proper balance of healthy gut probiotics, make sure you add a variety of organic,naturally-fermented foods, like organic kimchi or sauerkraut, to your diet, or taking a high-quality, shelf-stable probiotic supplement likeSmarter Gut Health.
We also recommend adding aquality vitamin D3 supplement to your daily routine. Vitamin D3 is absolutely essential for so many functions in your body; but research is now showing us that nowhere is vitamin D3 more important than to ensure the health of ourimmune system.
Avoiding Food-Borne Illnesses
Just the chance of getting food poisoning is often enough to make anyone think twice about eating foods that might increase your chances of getting sick. However, many of these foods, including rice, kidney beans, and especially leafy greens are nutrient-dense and are simply too important to ban for your diet. Taking a few extra minutes to make sure you're giving food the right amount of time and attention, both when you are preparing it and after you’ve enjoyed it, are really important steps in protecting you and your family from getting sick. Add in quality probiotics and a quality plant-based vitamin-D3 supplement and you are on your way to protecting yourself from the scary food-borne illnesses out there!