Is It Safe? Is It Nutritious? More Survey Answers from Scientists

cheese answersPART 2 OF A 3-PART SERIES

Does your grocery shopping include purchases of cheese, ground beef, canned fruit, products that contain high fructose corn syrup, sushi, or raw sprouts? Do you use sponges for kitchen clean-ups?  If so, you might be interested in the answers that nearly 3 dozen food scientists gave to questions from Shelf Life Advice about these (and other) products.  


What follows are 7 Q/As about food safety and nutrition from our recent 20-question survey.  Answers don't total 100% when 1 or more respondents skipped a question. Part 2 of this survey contains the results from 6 multiple choice items and 1 Yes/No question. Three of the multiple choice questions allowed respondents to check multiple answers, which resulted in response totaling above 100%.   


Unless otherwise indicated, all of the comments presented were made by scientists who responded to the survey. Some of these comments are not in quotation marks because the editor paraphrased their answers.  Some comments are in quotation marks but have no source given because the authors preferred to remain anonymous. 


Which of these would you not eat because you consider it risky?


(Respondents could choose as many responses as they felt described their behavior.)


a) raw sprouts: 69%  

b) soft cheese made with raw milk: 84%  

c) foods and beverages containing the artificial sweetener aspartame: 6%  

d) sushi containing raw fish: 34%

e) none of the above--I would eat all of these: 3%


Comments from respondents:


"I've actually eaten all of these but am aware of the risks."


Raw fish muscle is sterile, and many types of sushi are made from frozen fish. (Proper freezing kills parasites.)


Aspartame is being replaced in low pH [very acidic] beverages because of its lack of stability and has not been widely used in foods.


Raw milk has a high risk of containing listeria [a bacteria that can cause serious illness].


Children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems (such as those who are sick and patients on chemotherapy) should not eat raw sprouts, dairy products made with unpasteurized milk, or sushi made with raw fish.


"Recently I ate some soft cheese without asking if it was made from raw or pasteurized milk.  I didn't want to offend the cheese maker. Knowing who made a particular food product (could be an individual or company) is really important to me and my judgment of the quality, cleanliness, and safety of the food."  Timothy J. Bowser, Ph.D., Oklahoma State University, Dept. of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering


From the Chicago Tribune, "Health and Family" section "Milk studies add to debate about what's best for health," Jan.15, 2014: "...1 to 3 percent of dairy products consumed in this country are not pasteurized.  From 1998 to 2009, that resulted in 1,837 illnesses, two leading to death."


The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) writes that listeria outbreaks “are mainly caused by soft Mexican-style cheese, like queso fresco, and other cheeses that were either made from unpasteurized milk or contaminated during cheese making.”  (See "Listeria and Food".)


[Editor's note: To read more about the risks of consuming raw milk or soft cheese made with unpasteurized milk, go to these Shelf Life Advice articles: "Must milk be pasteurized to be safe to drink?  Is raw milk unsafe?" and "FAQs about Soft Cheeses--What's Safe, What Isn't."]


To read more about the dangers of raw sprouts, go to this Shelf Life Advice article:  "Raw Sprouts: Nutritious and Dangerous."  Also, check, "Sprouts: What You Should Know."]


Sponges ________ .


(Respondents could choose as many answers as they agreed with.)


a) are so difficult to decontaminate that they shouldn't be used in the kitchen:  52% 

b) can be safely decontaminated in the dishwasher:  35%  

c) can be safely decontaminated in the microwave:  45%

d) can be decontaminated with hot water and bleach:  35%

e) can be decontaminated with a method other than those listed above:  14%


Comments from respondents:


"It's easier to bleach washcloths daily."


"I do not recommend the use of sponges because of the high water activity and safe harborage of bacteria that can then be spread to surfaces/areas where the sponge is used."


Comments from Shelf Life Advice:


For more information on safe handling of kitchen sponges, see "Must I banish sponges from my kitchen to avoid the risk of contamination?"  In this article, food scientist Dr. Susan Brewer provides readers with an important warning:  "NEVER MICROWAVE A DRY SPONGE. You could start a fire that way."  She also explains exactly how to decontaminate a sponge with some of the methods listed in the question.  Dr. Brewer says a dishwasher doesn't get hot enough to decontaminate sponges, but sponges can be sanitized by soaking them in bleach water (3 tablespoons of bleach in a quart of water).


[Editor's note: After contemplating Dr. Brewer's remarks (made in 2010), I stopped using sponges in my kitchen, and I haven't missed them. I agree with the respondent's statement above:  it's easier to change washcloths every day and bleach used ones in the laundry than to decontaminate used sponges by other methods. Furthermore, I just can't bring myself to put dirty sponges in my microwave oven. Using paper toweling extensively gets expensive.]


How healthful is high fructose corn syrup compared to processed white sugar?


a) It's less healthful than sugar:  6%

b) It's the same as sugar:   50%

c) It's more healthful than sugar: 0%

d) Scientists don't have the final answer to this question yet: 44%


Comments from respondents:


"Break 'em down, and they're the same, about half glucose and half fructose."


"Many studies extrapolate from data on pure fructose, which should not be done.  More study is needed."


The health problem is consuming too much sugar in either form.  Both high fructose corn syrup and processed white sugar should be eaten in moderation.


Is it safe to cut off the moldy part of hard cheese (cheddar, brick, Parmesan, etc.) and eat the rest?


a) Yes.  Just remove the mold:  33%

b) Yes. But only if you cut off the cheese that's 1 inch from the mold:  30%

c) Yes, if you cut off 2 inches from the moldy area:   13%

d) No. Discard the entire chunk of cheese: 23% 


Comments from respondents:


"I don't know what kind of mold it is.  It may have mycotoxin."  Yao-Wen Huang, Ph.D, University of Georgia, Department of Food Science and Technology


"It all depends.  I know that there is some concern about mold toxins, but the mold toxin issue is less of a problem than people make it out to be."  Barbara Rasco, Ph.D., JD, Washington State University, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


"It's more of a taste issue.  If you don't cut off enough, you can still taste the mold."


There would be less food-borne illness in the U.S. if  ______.


(Respondents could choose as many responses as they agreed with.)


a) we stopped importing fish and shellfish: 10%

b) most Americans were vegetarians: 0%

c) everyone washed his/her hands  before eating or preparing food:  93%

d) all of the above were true:  7%


Comments from respondents:


"Correctly washing hands is most important to reduce food-borne illness."  Yao-Wen Huang, Ph.D., University of Georgia, Department of Food Science and Technology

[Editor's note: For correct hand-washing tips from the CDC, just google the topic.]


"Consumer food handling practices are not all that good. Home refrigerators are at too high a temperature. People tend to leave food out too long before refrigerating it (packed lunches, store purchases, etc.)" Barbara Rasco, Ph.D., JD, Washington State University, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


[There would be less food-borne illness if] "there was less cross-contamination between tainted water supply and vegetables." 


[Editor's note: Since, as the above comment suggests, there is a lot of contamination of produce and so much produce is consumed raw, being a vegetarian does not provide protection from food-borne illness. Perhaps the imported fish item (a) was not selected more often because cooking fish to 145°F kills most of the bacteria that may be on the fish.] 


Which is most likely to be contaminated?  


a) packaged ground beef:  30%

b) ground beef the consumer grinds at home: 33%

c) ground beef  purchased from the grocery store meat section: 22%

d) ground beef  the consumer asks the butcher to grind after selecting a whole cut of meat: 15%


Comments from respondents:

"Ground beef prepared from ground whole cuts by butcher or consumer is less likely to be contaminated than packaged/store packaged ground beef that includes trim. I chose this answer presuming that the store simply repackaged meat from chubs/bulk coming in from a commercial supplier.  Food handling could be a new source of contamination." Barbara Rasco, Ph.D. JD, Washington State University, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


"It could be either (c) because it's ground in huge quantities, mixing up all the attached bacteria, or (d) because microbial quality control of what goes into that grinder [in the store] is not as good as in a big processing plant.  Bottom line, consumers should use ground meat within a couple of days."


"Microbial pathogens don't care where the meat is ground.  I think it is more helpful to focus on safe handling, avoiding cross-contamination, proper cooking, etc. regardless of product source."

[Note: ground meat should be cooked to 165°F.]


Is raw fruit more nutritious than canned fruit?


Yes: 45%    No: 41%    Don't know: 10%    Don't choose to answer: 3%


Comments from respondents:


It depends upon how recently the fresh fruit was picked and on the type of fruit being compared. 


"It depends upon the product. There is some loss of vitamin (such as C) during the canning process, but most nutrients are retained. Fruit with substantial added sugar (heavy syrup) may not be advisable for some consumers." Barbara Rasco, Ph.D. JD, Washington State University, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition


"Both are nearly equal."  Melvin Hunt, Ph.D., emeritus professor, Kansas State University, Department of Animal Sciences and Industry


To read Parts 1 and 3 on our survey results, click on the following titles: 


"Raw Chicken, Leftovers, Deli Meats, and More--What Surveyed Scientists Said"


"Organic Food, GMOs, the Safety of American Food, the Value of Use-By Dates, and More--Scientists Tell Us What They Think"


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