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Why the Healthiest Way of Eating Is Also the World's Safest Way of Eating

If you are wondering why so many foods that are finding their way into the food safety spotlight--including tomatoes, peppers, salads, almonds, spinach, fish, shellfish and others--are also foods that we feature among the World's Healthiest Foods, there is one simple answer: the safety of these foods is greatly increased when you take all possible steps to preserve their quality. When it comes to your health safety, it's the quality of food that counts most. Quality is always our top-level concern when it comes to the Healthiest Way of Eating.

There are many different ways to think about the phrase, quality foods. For some people, the idea of gourmet foods might come to mind. For other people, this phrase might simply mean higher priced. When it comes to food safety, however, neither of these definitions apply as there are other aspects that make food top quality when it comes to safety. Because selection of top quality foods is the key to maximizing your food safety, it's important to understand what actually counts as top quality in this safety context.

Top Quality Foods Are Whole and Natural

Many of the food supply practices that can potentially compromise your food safety involve the manufacturing and distribution of processed foods. The processing of food, in and of itself, can raise issues involving food safety. Changes in food technology related to processing can dramatically increase the amount of time between harvest and consumption and create a need for unnatural steps in order to preserve the piece-parts of food.

In comparison to processed foods, whole, natural foods are naturally equipped to provide for their own safety. They are better protected against oxidation, better protected against molds and bacteria, better protected against temperature changes, and better protected against changes in texture, flavor, and nutrient value. Processed foods, by comparison, are poorly protected against oxidation, growth of molds and bacteria, and nutrient loss, and for this reason, they often require synthetic food additives to better protect them against these problems. But these synthetic additives can create their own set of safety risks--risk that can be minimized or eliminated if foods are consumed in a form that is close to their whole, natural state. We always recommend consumption of the World's Healthiest Foods in a state that is closest to their whole, natural form. That form is not only the tastiest and most nourishing for your diet, but also the safest.

Certified Organic Improves Food Quality

Throughout the website, we encourage you to purchase foods that have been organically grown. This quality of food is especially important when it comes to safety. Many of the factors that compromise the safety of food involve changes in agricultural practice and animal husbandry that are prohibited in the production of organic food. These changes include the use of untreated sewage as a fertilizer, the use of raw manure, and, in the case of animals, the use of contaminated feed. The organics provision that prohibits use of raw manure is especially important since problems involving food safety have sometimes been traced to the use of raw manure as a fertilizer. The organic regulations prohibit the use of raw manure less than 120 days prior to harvest if a food has an edible portion that comes into contact with the soil (like a squash) or is incorporated into the soil (like a carrot). While there is very limited human research at this point to document the increased safety of organically grown foods, we believe that future research will clearly identify a wide variety of safety benefits in this regard.

Pesticide residues are another aspect of food quality that can pose an unwanted risk to your health, and you can reduce this risk factor by purchasing organically grown foods. Synthetic pesticides and herbicides are not allowed in the production of organic food. A special group of foods has been identified by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) as the Dirty Dozen Plus. Out of 45 fruits and vegetables surveyed by the EWG, these were the 12 fruits and vegetables, which when grown conventionally, that contained the greatest pesticide load. Accordingly, the EWG has also stated that these are the most important foods for you to buy organic. These are presented in descending order in terms of pesticide residue frequency (the uppermost food contains pesticide residues on the most frequent basis, and the next food down contains pesticide residues at the second highest frequency):

The "Plus" in the "Dirty Dozen Plus" refers to a new category that the Environmental Working Group added to their report this year. It reflects two types of produce that didn't meet the traditional Dirty Dozen criteria yet were of special concern. While they may not have been among the top 12 crops in which pesticide residues were found, these conventionally grown "Plus" crops were found to commonly be contaminated with organophosphate insecticides, which are considered to be highly toxic to the nervous system.

For the 2012 list, the "Plus" crops included:

We would also like to single out the safety benefits of organic food when it comes to the issue of genetic engineering. From our perspective, the genetic engineering of food is a practice that decreases food safety, even though we recognize that there is very limited human research at this point to substantiate our point of view. We are glad to report, however, that genetic engineering is strictly prohibited in the production of organic food and can be avoided in your diet whenever you purchase organic.

For all of the reasons listed above, we believe that purchasing organic is a key way for you to increase your food safety. And with the exception of fish, shellfish, and water, all of the World's Healthiest Foods are available in organic form as certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Seasonal and Local Foods Can Also Mean Higher Food Quality

One of the factors that has compromised food safety is increased reliance on international trade, global processing, global shipping, and long-term food storage to meet the dietary needs of most people. Many consumers have come to expect availability of all foods on a "24/7" and 365 days-per-year basis, and a large percentage of foods must travel long distances to meet that consumer expectation. At local farmer's market, local farms that sell directly to consumers, or local groceries that work closely with small farmers in the immediate area, you are much more likely to find fresher foods that were recently harvested and have not been processed or prepped in order to travel great distances. You're also more likely to find foods that are in season. When foods are cultivated in their natural habitat, and during their natural growing season, their composition is different than when they are grown out-of-season with the help of fertilizers, soil amendments, or, in the case of some foods, genetically engineered changes that allow them to be more cold- or drought-tolerant. Once again, we recognize that there is very limited human research at this point to substantiate our point of view with respect to the increased safety of seasonal and local foods. However, we believe that future research will be able to confirm the value of seasonal and local foods with respect to your health safety.

Proper Food Selection, Handling, and Storage Can Increase Safety

Certified organic, whole natural foods that were grown locally and in season make a spectacular starting point on your food safety journey. Yet, how you select individual foods at the grocery store and what you do with those foods after purchasing them is equally important.

To maximize your food safety, all foods must be properly selected, handled, and stored. On our website, we include a section entitled, "How to Select and Store" for every one of the World's Healthiest Foods. In this section, you will find selection and storage recommendations that are highly specific and unique for each food.

To maximize your food safety, it's important to put these recommendations into practice. For example, if you store your spices above the stove, you are asking for trouble in terms of food safety. Cooking on the stove top usually generates heat and moisture. Heat and moisture provide ideal growing conditions for unwanted molds and bacteria in your spices.

Many foods must be refrigerated in order to slow down the growth of unwanted bacteria. Other foods do best when stored in a cool (but not cold) dry spot. To maximize your food safety, you'll want to take different steps for different foods, and our "How to Select and Store" sections will provide you with clear guidelines in this regard.

Cooking to a proper temperature can also greatly increase the safety of your food, especially when it comes to unwanted bacteria. While different foods require different temperatures for maximum safety, you can err on the safe side by making sure that a minimum temperature of 165°F (74°C) has been reached when you cook foods. (This temperature is highest one recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and is high enough for even foods like meats). Remember that this temperature requirement involves the core temperature reached at the innermost part of the food, not the surface temperature or the oven temperature. Once this minimum core temperature is reached, lengthy cooking times are not required to greatly reduce your bacterial risk. For example, when high-temperature, short-time (HTST) pasteurization is used in the food industry, only 15 seconds at 161°F (72°C) are required. To make sure that your foods have been cooked thoroughly, you may want to buy a food thermometer and make sure that it registers at least 165°F (74°C) when placed into the center of an individual food, a combined dish, or even leftovers.

Each of our World's Healthiest Foods profiles also contains a "Safety" section in which we describe unique safety concerns than may be associated with that particular food. For example, in our Safety section for apples, we note that non-organic apples may sometimes be waxed with petroleum-based waxes, and we recommend increasing your food safety either by purchasing organic apples, or by purchasing non-organic apples that have been waxed with natural waxes like carnauba wax (from the carnauba palm tree), beeswax, or shellac (from the lac beetle).

Proper Cooking Times and Temperatures Are Critical Aspects of Food Safety

Because most unwanted microorganisms can be totally destroyed or at least dramatically reduced in number through exposure to sufficient heat, learning about the proper cooking times and temperatures is an essential part of food safety. This area of concern is especially important when it comes to the Healthiest Way of Eating. On the one hand, it is absolutely essential to expose foods to sufficiently high heat for a sufficient amount of time to assure their safety. This requirement must be met without exception. At the same time, it is also important to cook each food in a way that preserves as much of its natural nutrient content as possible. It's amazing how much difference one minute of overcooking can make in some areas of nutritional content. For this reason, we provide you with very specific cooking times and temperatures in all of our recipes. By following these recommendations, you'll be taking important steps to maximize your food safety, while at the same time preserving the nutritional quality of your food.


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