10 summer food myths that can make you sick

Check out these safety tips to avoid food poisoning, cut prep time and more
© Woman's Day // © Woman's Day

Warm-weather eating

As temperatures rise, so do your chances of getting food poisoning. According to the USDA, the number of illnesses surge from May to September, when picnics and cookouts mean food is out in potentially dangerous temperatures. But even though disease-causing bacteria are lurking, you can stay healthy. Here are the biggest misconceptions about summer food safety and the facts that can keep sickness at bay.

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1. Myth: Food is safe in a cooler

“Life begins at 40 degrees,” says Bethany Thayer, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “If your cooler’s temperature rises above that, disease-causing microorganisms multiply.” To keep food fresh, fill 75% of the cooler with edibles first; then, pile on ice or ice packs to fill the remaining 25%. Transport the cooler in air conditioning (not a hot trunk), and when you reach your destination, keep the cooler in the shade with the lid closed. Place an inexpensive thermometer in between food items, not up against ice, to be sure the temperature stays below 40°F.

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2. Myth: Food is safe at room temperature for a few hours

A picnic buffet of cold cuts, fried chicken, hamburgers and potato and macaroni salad is OK to sit out for less time than you probably think. “In temperatures of 90°F or higher, you can keep foods out only for one hour,” says Ximena Jimenez, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “In temperatures between 40 and 90°F, you have two hours max.” Any longer, and bacteria that can make you sick start multiplying. Instead of losing track of time, set your cell phone’s alarm to remind you when to put food away. 

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3. Myth: Food poisoning isn’t a big deal

“Absolutely incorrect,” says Thayer. Food poisoning causes about 48 million illnesses and 3,000 deaths each year. “How sick a person gets depends on what bacteria is present, how much was eaten and an individual’s susceptibility.” Babies, young children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with weakened immune systems and chronic conditions are more vulnerable to getting sick and developing serious long-term health conditions, such as kidney failure and nerve damage. No matter your age and health status, it’s unpleasant to cope with food poisoning symptoms, which range from mild nausea, cramps and diarrhea that can last for days to vomiting and dehydration. 

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4. Myth: Leftovers are fine for days as long as they’re refrigerated

Most picnic foods, like lunch meat, cooked meats, poultry and pasta salad, are safe for up to four days in sealed containers in the refrigerator. After that, bacteria that can make you sick begin to grow, even though you can’t see or smell them. “But if foods were out longer than two hours, or an hour in very hot weather, you need to toss them; don’t even take them home with you,” says Thayer. Mark leftovers’ containers with the date you stashed it, and store them on one shelf in your fridge so you remember to use them.

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5. Myth: Spoiled food looks and smells bad

Eating spoiled food can give you food poisoning, but you can’t tell something’s spoiled by sight, taste or smell, says Jimenez. If it’s been in the fridge since the picnic a week ago or if you can’t remember when you put it in there, follow the old rule: When in doubt, throw it out. It’s also wise to place a thermometer in your fridge to make sure it’s keeping food at 40°F or less. If it’s warmer, food may spoil more quickly. 

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6. Myth: You can tell when meat is cooked by feeling it or looking at it

Even if your guy thinks he’s the world’s finest grillmaster, encourage him to use a food thermometer. The outside of meat may look done or feel firm when pressed, but inside, there may be spots that aren’t fully cooked. Stick a thermometer in the thickest part of the meat, avoiding bone and fat. Steaks are safe at 145 to 170°F, depending on how done you want it; ground beef at 160°F; pork chops and ribs at 145°F; and poultry at 165°F. 

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7. Myth: You don’t have to wash produce if you’re peeling it

Nope. You have to rinse avocados, cucumbers, watermelons and more, even if you peel them. “The peeling knife can carry bacteria such as E. coli into the fruit as it slices from the outside to the inside,” says Jimenez. So rinse produce under running tap water (special soaps aren’t necessary) before cutting or peeling. Scrub firm produce that has nooks and crannies, such as cantaloupe, with a brush. 

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8. Myth: Foods can marinate safely on the counter

Even though many marinades contain acidic, germ-killing ingredients, like lemon juice, “whenever foods are in the danger zone of 40 to 140°F (or slightly higher, depending on the safe internal cooking temperature), disease-causing bacteria grow quickly,” says Jimenez. Let foods marinate in the fridge, and if you use leftover marinade, boil it before pouring it on cooked meats. 

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9. Myth: Foods can thaw safely on the counter

You may think you’re jumpstarting the thawing process by leaving frozen foods out, but you’re really jumpstarting bacteria growth. “Bacteria multiply at an alarming rate,” says Thayer. “You can go from one to trillions in 24 hours.” Instead, thaw foods in the refrigerator overnight, in the microwave (then cook immediately) or in the sink in a cold water bath. For sink thawing, wrap food in a plastic zip-close bag and submerge in cold water, changing the water every 30 minutes so it stays cold, says Jimenez. 

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