Coronavirus and Food
Associate Professor of Food Science and Technology Hussein F. Hassan advises on how best to manage food and grocery shopping during the SARS-CoV-2 lockdown.
As citizens exercise self-isolation and social distancing, daily habits like running errands, cooking or ordering takeout require additional preventive measures against the SARS-CoV-2 or severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (commonly known as Coronavirus or COVID-19 disease).
In this interview, LAU Associate Professor of Food Science and Technology Hussein F. Hassan in the Department of Natural Sciences addresses the dos and don’ts of food safety, grocery shopping, and the best practices of disinfecting surfaces and packages. Dr. Hassan, who is the department’s associate chair, also debunks some myths that are circulating the internet with regard to boosting the immune system.
RAW OR COOKED?
Is SARS-CoV-2 transmitted through food?
The virus can never be transmitted directly through food, because it requires a host to grow and multiply. It can be transmitted indirectly, if the food handler in a restaurant sneezes or coughs on the packaged item. When the customer takes the sandwich for example, the virus is transmitted to his or her hand, and then to their face. Transmission is therefore indirect through the packaging.
If the food handler sneezes directly on the food, and the food is then cooked, the virus will be destroyed during cooking. Therefore, it is important to cook food well, to avoid contamination in case of lack of personal hygiene or negligence.
Is it safe to eat raw food?
The immune system is compromised when you contract any type of food-borne diseases such as food poisoning, making you more prone to SARS-CoV-2. If the immune system is weakened, then the virus can multiply faster in the body.
For this reason, raw meat should be avoided during this period and all meat and poultry should be cooked well. To be completely safe, insert a needle thermometer at the center of the meat and make sure the temperature reaches 75 degrees.
Should we rely more on frozen vegetables for cooking and processed dairy products?
It is always advisable to buy frozen products, because they have all the nutrients. Freezing is super safe for preserving nutrients.
However, avoid canned foods, because they have many preservatives and salt that are harmful to the system.
The same goes for dairy products. Best get these packed from reputable sources to minimize the risk of food-borne diseases.
There is no science-based evidence that says SARS-CoV-2 is transmitted through secreted milk. Therefore, milk cannot be contaminated with SARS-CoV-2 because of a carrier animal.
By law, all our dairy must be treated to ensure their safety. For example, during the pasteurization or sterilization of milk, all pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2, are killed in the heat treatment.
For people who live in the countryside, it is not risky to pick plants or herbs and consume them raw, because they are in the wild. Nevertheless, it is always better to take extra precautions and disinfect them with vinegar and water.
TO DISINFECT OR NOT TO DISINFECT
What is the best way to disinfect fruits and vegetables?
There is no specific method for disinfection when it comes to SARS-CoV-2. In all cases, they should be soaked in either brine (water and salt) or water and vinegar.
How can we wash items like onions, garlic, or bananas?
We can’t, and there is no need to disinfect them either. You need to wash your hands after placing these items in their storage area. If they are contaminated with SARS-CoV-2, the virus will have died by the time you use them, because it cannot survive for long outside a host, be it a human or an animal.
Again, it all comes down to washing your hands – the only effective step in preventing SARS-CoV-2.
How can we make disinfectants at home?
For each one liter or four cups of water, add a small coffee cup of vinegar. Any type. Soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
If you want to use water and salt (for vegetables, not fruits), for every four cups add three teaspoons of salt and soak for 15 to 20 minutes.
For grocery bags, cans and packages:
Either use store-bought disinfectants or mix the concentrated disinfectant with water according to the manufacturer’s instructions in a sprayer.
After spraying the cans and packages, wipe them with a dry cloth.
DELIVERY OR SHOP IN PERSON?
Should we avoid ordering food from restaurants?
When it comes to ordering food from restaurants instead of relying on homecooked meals, it is better to minimize or avoid delivery food because of the probability of a lack of personal hygiene.
When you do order food, opt for reputable restaurants that have food safety management systems in place.
What are the best prevention measures when running errands?
I prefer small shops over supermarkets, because they are less crowded, with less human interaction.
However, wherever you go – a supermarket or mini-market – wear a mask. This way, if you touch something that is contaminated, it is more difficult for the virus to get into the respiratory system, with your mouth and nose covered.
In all cases, minimize your trips to the supermarket. Make an exhaustive grocery list and go once a week to buy what you need.
When possible, rely on delivery services for your grocery shopping and other items instead of going out in person, to avoid contact with contaminated surfaces.
Designate “a dirty area,” such as a counter in the kitchen. Place all bags on that counter and disinfect. Once you dispose of the bags, disinfect the surface again. Grocery bags should not be used to store food items but should be recycled as trash bags.
Most importantly, wash your hands after handling grocery bags.
BOOSTING THE IMMUNE SYSTEM: FACT OR MYTH?
While one of the effective prevention measures is self-isolation, experts also talk about boosting the immunity. What advice can you give?
Our immune system relies on white blood cells, which release antibodies. A diet rich in fiber and antioxidants (phytochemicals), and nutrients – vitamins and minerals – will increase the white cells count, which will lead to more antibodies that can fight viruses including SARS-CoV-2.
Keep in mind, though, that the immune system cannot be boosted overnight. It is about long-term lifestyle changes. You need to exercise, quit smoking, eat healthy, sleep well, and avoid stress.
Since this crisis is likely to go on for some time, it is a good idea to start introducing habits that will help boost the immunity.
As I mentioned earlier, protect your body from food-borne illnesses by avoiding raw meat and cooking the food well. It is also important to avoid deep fried foods.
Include fiber in your diet, because it improves and multiplies the gastrointestinal microbiota – good bacteria – that have a positive effect on immunity.
Fiber is found in whole fruits, vegetables, whole cereals, and pulses, such as dry beans, dry peas and chickpeas. Include Omega-3 which can be found in seafood and raw nuts. Including spices in your diet is also good. Spices are rich in antioxidants, which scavenge on free radicals that can weaken the immune system.
Authentic honey is also a good source of minerals and antioxidants.
Drinking plenty of water (8 cups) and physical activity, even in your homes, are of course very important. Rely on the Internet for tips on how to be active at home.
What myths are being circulated on the issue of food safety and foods/spices/herbs that are not scientifically proven?
There have been some tips going around like drinking anise. This is not true at all because anise contains chemicals we call phytoestrogens, which are estrogens from plant sources. These will have negative implications on health.
In all cases, it is better to avoid purchasing unpacked herbal products because they might have been contaminated due to exposure to the surrounding environment. There is the additional risk they might contain heavy metals and other hazards that are detrimental to your health.
It is best to purchase packed herbs by reputable manufacturers.
More importantly, some herbs can interact with medicines. It is vital that you inform your healthcare provider about any herbal medicine you are taking or plan to take.
Dr. Hassan’s research interests revolve around non-microbial food safety and food processing, in addition to identifying and preventing the occurrence of toxic residues in foods manufactured and marketed in Lebanon.