Jack-o’-lanterns are not food

122405540We grew pumpkins for cooking in our garden this year, and we plan to carve a few as small jack-o’-lanterns. If I spray the interior of the pumpkins with bleach and use an electric candle, can I still use them for cooking?

It’s not a good idea. Generally, perishable food — which is what your pumpkins will be once you carve them — shouldn’t be left at room temperature for more than two hours.

And actually, “room temperature” is not quite accurate. Not to use a scary term or anything, but you want perishable food in the “danger zone” of 40 degrees to 140 degrees F for no longer than two hours. After that amount of time, any cells of bacteria lurking around have too much of an opportunity to multiply to illness-causing levels.

It’s possible — unlikely, but possible — that you might carve the pumpkins in advance, store them in the refrigerator until it’s time for trick-or-treating, and then chill them again immediately afterward. (This assumes your Beggars Night is just two hours long.) In this case, it would probably be possible to use the pumpkins for cooking. At least, it would satisfy the two-hour rule. But the fact that you say you want to use bleach on the pumpkins indicates that you want to carve them and let them sit out for a while, maybe even a day or two. If you decide to eat the pumpkins after that amount of time, no preservative, not bleach or anything else, will protect you from the kinds of ghouls that could creep into your gut as a result. Besides, although it is great for hard surfaces like countertops, bleach does not disinfect foods. Moreover, bleach is not a food. You shouldn’t eat food treated with household bleach.

You’ll probably get a lot more enjoyment from your fall festivities if you just go out and buy a pumpkin made for carving. Good varieties of “eating” pumpkins have thicker, denser flesh, which makes them more difficult to carve anyway.

Another food safety guideline for the season: Make sure any apple cider you buy is pasteurized. Most of it is these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Until the 1990s, apple cider’s high acidity was thought to protect it from most contaminants. But then there were several outbreaks traced to cider contaminated with E. coli O157:H7 and the parasiteCryptosporidium, and regulations changed.

Be careful. In Ohio, cider that’s packaged and sold directly to the consumer from the premises where it’s made isn’t necessarily pasteurized. If not, it will have a warning label — pay heed.

Take a stand against sitting

115028169I know how important physical activity is for you. But I’ve also heard that just the act of sitting for long periods (like I do at my desk every day at work) can be hazardous to your health. If this is true, what can I do about it?

Recent research has, in fact, made a connection between too much downtime — that is, down-on-your-butt-time — and increased health risks.

In a 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers examined data over 8.5 years from nearly 241,000 adults ages 50 to 71. The people in the study did not report any cancer, heart disease or respiratory disease at the beginning of the study.

The researchers asked participants to estimate the number of hours of overall sitting time per day, as well as the number of hours spent watching television. Both types of sedentary behavior were associated with higher mortality over the course of the study.

The greatest risk was noted for those watching the most television: Compared with those reporting one hour of television viewing per day, participants who reported seven hours of TV viewing per day had a 50 percent greater risk of dying, even after adjusting for other risk factors, such as the amount of physical activity the person engaged in otherwise.

The researchers weren’t certain why television viewing would have a different effect than other types of sitting, but wondered if people just had more difficulty estimating their total sitting time than their TV-watching time.

At any rate, your question is a valid one: Many people today sit for long periods both on the job and at leisure. The overall effect can be profound.

What can you do? Get creative and find ways to get moving:

  • At the office, stand up, stretch, and take a quick walk if you can once an hour. Set an alarm as a reminder.
  • Stand up whenever you talk on the phone — and opt to make a phone call more often instead of sending an email.
  • Encourage your colleagues to have “standing” meetings. They’re usually shorter and more productive, as well as healthier.
  • Examine your TV watching. Do you really enjoy what you watch, or has it just become a habit? If you can pare down your viewing, use the extra time to take a walk through the neighborhood, clean up some clutter or run the vacuum cleaner. Even small amounts of additional movement can be helpful.

Cut back on sugar, high-fructose or not

I keep hearing different things about high-fructose corn syrup. Some people say it’s a lot worse than sugar, and others say it’s just the same. Who’s right? 

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You’re seeing different viewpoints on this issue probably because research on high-fructose corn syrup is continuing to emerge. With each published study comes more commentary on both sides.

The problem is that some studies indicate that the body handles high-fructose corn syrup differently than it handles sucrose, but other studies haven’t found such differences. As a result, different scientists have different opinions on the issue.

High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is under the spotlight partly because it’s so ubiquitous in processed foods. But most people are surprised to learn how similar HFCS is to sucrose. Sucrose, the kind of sugar in your sugar bowl — and the type that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables — is composed of approximately equal parts of fructose and glucose.

High-fructose corn syrup is also a mixture of fructose and glucose, with the proportions often depending on its use. Pure corn syrup is almost all glucose, but HFCS made for use in baked goods usually contains about 42 percent fructose. HFCS used in beverages usually has about 55 percent fructose.

In a 2012 position paper on sweeteners, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reviewed research from the previous decade that looked for links between consuming HCFS and obesity

Still, don’t let that stop you from taking action. The fact is, if you’re like most people, you’d probably do well to reduce the amount of any added sugar in your diet.or other adverse effects in adults. The analysis determined that, overall, studies offered little evidence that HFCS differed from sucrose in such effects. But the analysis did suggest, because the studies were small and of short duration, that more studies are needed for more definitive conclusions.

Most Americans consume more than 350 calories of added sugars a day — that’s the type of sugar in soft drinks, cookies, candy, pastries, soft drinks and ice cream. It doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars, such as those in milk and fruit that are accompanied by all sorts of “good-for-you” nutrients.

To find added sugars, look at the ingredients listings on food labels. You’ll have to do some detective work, because added sugar goes by many names. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics offers a list of what to look for at http://bit.ly/addedsugarlist.

Make food safety your tailgate goal

80602107Some friends tailgate before football games, complete with grilling burgers and brats in the parking lot outside the stadium. But they don’t seem to take basic food safety precautions. They say they’ve never had a problem, but are there guidelines I can give them? 

For people who know a thing or two about food safety, nothing will make them grit their teeth more than hearing, “We’ve always done it this way and we’ve never had a problem.”

That’s what people always say — until they experience a problem. In fact, leaders of a church in North Carolina said something similar last month when nearly 90 people became ill with Salmonella poisoning — 13 of them hospitalized. That was after a church barbecue, held annually for 50 years.

Even if you’ve never had a problem before, you still need to follow common-sense food safety guidelines, because you never know when foodborne illness might raise its ugly head.

Tailgating deserves some special considerations because you’re likely in an especially relaxed, carefree atmosphere, yet trying to prepare food in a spot without running water or other conveniences that we often take for granted during food preparation.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture offers tailgating safety tips on its food safety blog (seehttp://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/tacklingatailgate.html) and in a video (http://bit.ly/youtubetailgate). Among the guidelines:

  • Bring plenty of water and sanitizers. You’ll need clean, wet, disposable cloths, moist towelettes and paper towels for cleaning hands and surfaces.
  • Be sure any juices from raw meat and poultry don’t contaminate other foods. Wrap meat securely; carry it in a separate cooler if possible. Immediately throw away paper plates you use to carry raw meat to the grill.
  • When grilling, test meat with a thermometer to be sure it’s cooked thoroughly: hamburgers and bratwursts to 160 degrees F; chicken to 165 degrees F.
  • Pack cold perishable food in an insulated cooler with several inches of ice, frozen gel packs or containers of ice. Remember, you’ll need enough coolers and ice to keep any perishable leftovers — even beans or other dishes you may have brought to the tailgate warm — chilled to 40 degrees F or lower when the party is over.