The holidays are a time of gluttony for most of us. As we come into contact with foods we don’t cook or eat frequently, there are several food safety pitfalls to consider.
Food poisoning cases usually rise in November and December, because many of our favorite festive foods include raw ingredients like egg, meat, or unpasteurized milk.
We tapped food safety and nutrition expert Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND to help us identify some risky holiday foods—and give us tips for how to consume them more safely.
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Besides being loaded with calories, fat, and added sugar, eggnog can be harmful to your health by posing a food-poisoning risk. Because it’s made with raw eggs, there’s always the possibility of Salmonella infection, which can be especially dangerous for the elderly, children, pregnant women, and anyone with a compromised immune system. In order to enjoy your eggnog safely, skip the homemade version. Instead, grab a store-bought eggnog, which has been pasteurized to kill off any bacteria.
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Apple cider is a cold-weather favorite, and it’s sold everywhere from farm stands to supermarkets come Christmastime. But this is another holiday beverage that often comes unpasteurized, which makes it more susceptible to bacteria.
“Many smaller farms or some supermarkets that make their own apple cider in house may choose not to pasteurize their apple cider,” Amidor says. “This puts the person at risk for E. Coli.”
And you really don’t want to be infected with E. Coli, which can give you symptoms like a bloody or watery stool and sometimes even lead to kidney failure. When buying apple cider from the supermarket, look for the “pasteurized” label, or ask your friendly apple farmer if they’ve pasteurized their homemade version.
Raw beef can make an appearance on holiday tables in several different forms. Steak tartare and “cannibal sandwiches” are not uncommon additions to Christmas spreads in the Midwest and beyond. But eating raw meat is never without risk, and it poses a threat for illness from campylobacter, E. coli, listeria, and salmonella, all of which can potentially land you in the hospital, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health. So stay safe and cook your beef!
If you’re opting out of eating meat on Christmas Eve, as many Catholics do, you may choose to serve either cooked or raw oysters. We’d recommend sticking to cooked oysters, say in a stew, rather than serving them raw. Oysters can carry the Vibrio bacteria, which can cause vibriosis in humans, an infection marked by severe digestive issues, fever, and chills. About 80,000 Americans get vibriosis every year—you don’t be one of them.
There’s nothing like a DIY gift of homemade pickles or jam—it’s both personal and delicious. But canning food at home can also have toxic consequences if done improperly.
“The issue is botulism caused by toxins which grow in conditions without oxygen,” Amidor says. “The poison they leave behind can potentially be deadly.”
If you’re the one doing the canning, make sure to follow the recipe’s food safety and sterilization protocols to a T. “And when in doubt, toss the can out,” Amidor advises.
Cheese boards are all the rage for the holidays, but try to avoid unpasteurized cheeses which can infect you with listeria, Amidor says. The usual suspects include soft cheeses like brie, camembert, feta, goat cheese, or blue-veined cheese, which are made from raw or unpasteurized milk. Though some heat is applied in the production process of these cheeses, the temperatures don’t get high enough to kill off harmful bacteria. Again, make sure to check for a “pasteurized” label on store-bought cheeses before you purchase them.
If your fluffy chocolate dessert contains raw eggs, there’s always potential for an infection with salmonella. “Anything you’re making at home with raw eggs, whether a mousse, hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise, or Caesar dressing, should be made with pasteurized eggs from the supermarket,” Amidor cautions.
And for more, check out these 100 Unhealthiest Foods on the Planet.