Food Safety top tips for preparing plant-based foods

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Food Safety Top tips for Plant-Based foods

Plant-based foods are all the rage, appearing in restaurants, supermarkets and a range of other food businesses. There are so many delicious and healthy plant-based recipes out there to try. Some consumer diets may consist entirely of plant-based foods whilst others may be limiting their intake of foods from animals. Research shows that there are clear health benefits to a plant-based diet. But is food safety still a concern when it comes to preparing plant-based foods?

Food safety can be defined as “the protection of consumer health and well-being by safeguarding food from anything that could cause harm”. Food poisoning is extremely unpleasant, and in some instances can be fatal, therefore ensuring food safety and preventing food poisoning is an important task.

Pathogenic bacteria (the “baddies”) are the ones that can cause food poisoning. It’s important to remember that bacteria can come from different places. The main sources of bacteria include:

  • Food
  • Water
  • Soil
  • The air
  • Humans
  • Animals

Whilst producing plant-based foods doesn’t involve slaughtering animals, bacteria can still contaminate these foods in other ways. Therefore, it is essential that food safety principles are followed even when preparing plant-based foods.

So, here’s some tips to consider when preparing plant-based foods.

Food safety when chilling foods (including plant-based foods)

Chilling foods (including plant-based foods) properly will help to stop harmful bacteria from growing. Bacteria need certain things to grow. They grow best in ready to eat/ cooked foods which are high in protein and moist. Foods with these characteristics are called ‘high-risk foods’. In terms of plant-based foods this would include things such as rice, pulses and even plant-based eggs. Bacteria also need warmth to be able to grow, this is why it is important to avoid keeping high-risk foods at room temperature.

Did you know: Anything between 8°C and 63°C is known as the ‘danger zone’ as it’s within this range that bacteria grow the fastest.

To keep plant-based foods safe:

  • Minimise the time that high-risk plant-based foods are at room temperature. This includes foods with a ‘use by’ date, cooked dishes, prepared salads and desserts. You want to aim to keep foods cold (i.e. below 8°C) or hot (i.e. above 63°C) to prevent bacteria from multiplying to unsafe levels. This means keeping chilled food out of the fridge for the shortest time possible during preparation.
  • Store any high-risk foods (i.e. those with a ‘use by’ date, cooked dishes, prepared salads and desserts) in the fridge.
  • It’s important to check the temperature of your fridge when storing high-risk plant-based foods. Make sure your fridge is operating below 5°C, ideally between 1°C and 5°C.
  • Don’t overfill your fridge. Make sure you leave space for the air to circulate to ensure the fridge maintains the set temperature.
  • Ensure that you follow the storage instructions on the packaging of any plant-based foods. This includes any best before and use by dates.
  • If you have cooked a plant-based meal and want to cool it down to use another day you want to do this as quickly as possible to minimise the time the food is in the danger zone. Aim to cool the food within 2 hours (ideally 1.5 hours) before placing into the fridge or freezer.

Did you know: You don’t want to place piping hot food straight into the fridge because it will raise the temperature of all the other foods in the fridge.

Freezing

If you want to cook a delicious plant-based meal in advance so that you can grab it on a busy day then you will be pleased to know that freezing actually “pauses” the growth of bacteria (bacteria become dormant during freezing). Freezing also locks in nutrients and prevents food spoilage.

  • Make sure you freeze any leftovers and homemade plant-based foods as soon as possible
  • Don’t forget to cool down any warm dishes before placing into your freezer
  • To stop the cold air in your freezer drying out your plant-based foods ensure you place them into air-tight containers or wrap them thoroughly in freezer wrap or freezer bags
  • It’s recommended to consume frozen foods within 3-6 months of freezing
  • Make sure you check the instructions on the packaging of any plant-based foods to ensure they are suitable for freezing

Did you know: Freezing food will delay any chemical reactions likely to occur within the food and put any bacteria that may be in the food on ‘pause’. The bacteria are still alive but they stop growing or producing toxins. It’s important to remember that the bacteria haven’t  been killed so they may revive when you defrost the food. To prevent food poisoning, defrost foods in the fridge to ensure that the food doesn’t enter the danger zone. (1)

Cleaning to ensure food safety when preparing plant-based foods

When preparing foods (including plant-based foods) cleaning is essential to stop harmful bacteria spreading onto food.

  • Hand washing is crucial in protecting all foods from contamination. Don’t forget to wash your hands before you prepare or cook any plant-based foods
  • Washing fruit and vegetables is also really important, this helps to remove dirt and soil from the surface and also any pesticide residues that may be present. Peeling vegetables can also remove bacteria and is an extra precaution if you intend to eat root vegetables raw
  • Dish cloths and tea towels should be changed regularly as they can be a source of bacteria. They can actually spread bacteria around the kitchen surfaces!
  • Make sure you check the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure that any cleaning products are suitable for food contact surfaces and also to make sure you use the product correctly. To kill harmful bacteria on food surfaces you need to leave the product on the surface for the amount of time detailed in the instructions (this is known as the ‘contact time’). You also need to check if the product needs to be diluted before use.

Did you know:  Detergents (i.e. washing up liquid) do not kill bacteria, they only remove grease and dirt. To kill bacteria you need to use a disinfectant or sanitiser. These do not work if the surface is covered in grease or dirt so make sure the surface is visibly clean first.

Cooking /Reheating of plant-based foods

Always check the cooking instructions on food packaging when cooking or reheating plant-based foods. Cooking/ reheating foods at the right temperature for the right amount of time is important to ensure harmful bacteria are killed.

  • Frozen vegetables (i.e. sweetcorn) should be cooked before you eat them. If you want to use these as part of a cold dish (i.e. a salad) check the manufacturer’s instructions. If they advise that the frozen vegetable should be cooked, ensure you do this first. Then ensure you cool the frozen vegetables down as quickly as possible, store in the fridge and use within 2 days. You can cool them quickly by running under clean cold water.

Preventing cross-contamination when preparing plant-based foods

To avoid food poisoning you want to reduce the risk of cross-contamination between raw and ready to eat foods. Even if you are not intending to use meat or fish if your dish, consideration should still be given to whether raw meat and fish are being stored in the same fridge and have been prepared in the same kitchen. This is because cross-contamination occurs when bacteria transfer from raw food onto cooked or ready to eat foods. Also remember that raw food items not only include raw meat and fish but also vegetables. Vegetables may contain bacteria in the form of dirt and soil from the ground.

So, how exactly can you prevent cross-contamination?

  • Organise your fridge so that ready to eat foods (i.e. salad items, fruits, desserts requiring refrigeration such as cheesecakes) are stored away from raw food items. The best place to store raw food items is at the bottom of the fridge. In the case of raw meat and fish this reduces the risk of juices dripping onto foods below.
  • Keep foods covered when they are not being prepared. This principle applies to all foods plant-based or otherwise. If foods are not kept covered, not only may they become contaminated with bacteria but foreign objects such as hair, dust and other items could fall into the foods. It’s never pleasant finding a hair in your food!
  • Use separate utensils and chopping boards for preparing raw and ready to eat foods.
  • It may not always be practical to use separate food preparation surfaces for preparing raw and ready to eat foods, however make sure that you clean and disinfect the surfaces thoroughly between uses. It’s best to prepare ready to eat foods first then clean the surface with a food safe sanitiser before preparing raw foods.

Hopefully this blog will inspire you to get cooking plant-based foods confidently and safely.

References

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