Eating fresh food is often deemed to be a healthier choice. The Malaysian Dietary Guidelines also recommends including more fresh foods in our daily diet such as fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, meat, seafood for our daily nutritional needs.
In today’s busy lifestyle, it has become more challenging for working parents to eat fresh foods daily. Processed foods would still form a part of our diet. For some foods like grains and cereals (rice, oats, wheat) and milk various processing methods upon harvesting are required to retain its shelf life before it gets to the consumers.
Fresh from the farm
In choosing fresh foods we need to be mindful of several factors such as they spoil easily and are prone to contamination. Do not assume that all fresh foods are free of contaminants as food contamination can occur in any of the following four areas before it reaches the market and to the consumers.
The first area is during production. There have been cases of contaminants (e.g. disease outbreak) affecting crops or animals. In the case of foods that are caught or harvested such as fish, there have also been cases of high levels of mercury that have made the entire catch unfit for human consumption.
The second area is during storage. The risk of contamination and spoilage can occur when fresh foods are not stored properly, especially in the correct temperature or when they are exposed to pests such as cockroaches and rats.
The third area is during the distribution of fresh foods to the market. Again, environmental factors such as temperature differences or exposure to dust and pollutants during the transportation of perishable foods for the consumers can contribute to the risk of contamination and spoilage.
Lastly, improper preparation methods (either poor hygiene or unsanitary practices) during the handling of food can also cause the contamination of fresh foods.
Did you know?
Foodborne illnesses typically occur within three days of eating contaminated foods, but it also depends on the degree of contamination. Your body may show symptoms within 20 minutes or as late as six weeks later. Common symptoms include abdominal pain, diarrhoea, vomiting, and flu-like symptoms (e.g. fever, headache, and body ache).
Selecting fresh foods safely
The possibility of fresh foods being contaminated should not deter you from avoiding fresh foods. There are several tips on how you can select fresh foods safely and avoid consuming contaminated foods which can lead to foodborne illness such as infections caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites or poisoning caused by harmful toxins or chemicals.
Fresh foods are not limited to just fruits and vegetables. They also include meats, poultry, eggs, and seafood too. Here are some tips you can follow in order to select, store, and prepare your fresh foods safely:
1. Pick it Right
- Choose unblemished fruits and vegetables which are not dry, bruised or damaged. Make sure there is no discolouration, do not have a rotten smell and are free from pests such as insects. It should look clean and fresh.
- As for pre-packaged or precut fresh foods such as fruits, only select those that have been refrigerated or kept on ice.
- When choosing fresh seafood, it should not have a pungent or rotten odour. For fish, the eyes should be clear and not sunken, the flesh should be firm and resilient, and the gills should be bright red and slime-free. Shrimps or prawns should have shiny, translucent flesh and should not smell. Crabs should be bought live as they spoil very quickly.
- Freshly butchered meat or poultry should have firm and resilient flesh. Avoid buying meat or poultry that have a pungent smell and if it feels sticky or slimy to the touch. If the meat or poultry has developed these characteristics, it should not be bought or even used for cooking (for instance, if you have bought the meat or poultry earlier but did not store it properly, it can become sticky or slimy to the touch).
- Select eggs with uncracked and clean shells. Do not purchase expired eggs with a rotten smell.
- Keep your fresh fruits and vegetables separated from raw meat, poultry, and seafood – this rule always applies, whether you are bringing them back from the market or when storing them in the refrigerator or freezer.
2. Store it Right
- Fresh fruits and vegetables should be kept in a clean refrigerator that maintains a temperature of 4°C or below. Put your mind at ease by checking the temperature with a thermometer.
- Ensure that all pre-packaged and pre-cut fresh foods are kept in the refrigerator. You may opt to transfer them into sealable containers.
- Always ensure that raw foods are kept separated from cooked foods. Also, always ensure that fruits and vegetables are stored separately from raw meat, poultry, or seafood.
- Take extra care if you need to thaw raw meat, poultry, or seafood in the refrigerator to ensure that they do not contaminate any of your fruits and vegetables or other cooked food that may be kept in the refrigerator.
- Refrigerate eggs that will not be used immediately for cooking and do not leave eggs out to ‘thaw’ for more than two hours. The condensation that forms will encourage bacterial growth or allow bacteria to move into the eggs.
3. Prepare it Right
- Wash your hands and all kitchen utensils (knife, cutting board, etc) used for the preparation of foods.
- Wash raw foods thoroughly with running water. It is recommended to soak fresh vegetables briefly in water to remove physical residues such as sand and small pebbles before washing it again under running water. Avoid using soap or detergent when washing raw foods.
- Use a dedicated knife and chopping board for fruits and vegetables and another set for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
- Cut off and dispose any damaged or bruised areas on fresh fruits and vegetables, and discard if it appears rotten.
- Fresh fruits and vegetables that will be peeled should also be washed as this prevents dirt and bacteria from contaminating any of your work surfaces.
- Use a soft brush to clean the surface of tubers such as potatoes and turnips.
Fit for human consumption
Remember, while you should eat fresh foods as often as possible, it is also not practical to completely remove processed or pre-packaged foods from our diet. With the advancement of technology, several processed foods nowadays are fortified with additional vitamins or minerals which can meet our daily nutritional needs.
Even frozen vegetables and fruits can be a healthy choice as the process of freezing retains a good level of nutrients, especially if they are frozen while fresh. Thus, on the whole, it is recommended to include more fresh foods in our daily diet in addition to processed or prepackaged foods and frozen foods.
An educational collaboration with Nutrition Society of Malaysia.