A lunch box is expected to be a source of respite, especially when one does not want to eat out. But is it still such a healthy lunch by the time one comes to eat it? It may not be after all. Raliat Ahmed-Yusuf writes.
Food is a necessity in our everyday life; we constantly have to make decisions about them for both ourselves and our families. In making those decisions we try to avoid the stress of having to go out of office for lunch by taking prepared food from home. This may be doing more harm than good as such lunch packs might constitute health risks.
This is because food tends to undergo chemical reactions at different temperatures that may have adverse effect on the consumer.
Bacteria like e.coli, salmonella and staphylococcus Aureus, are dangerous bacteria that can cause food poisoning because they multiply at temperatures between 4 to 60 degrees Celsius.
When food goes bad it is actually the molecules in it that reacts with enzymes and so forth; i.e the food is getting broken down and molecules are changing. Enzymes in the food have an optimum temperature in which they work at. If it gets below or above the optimum temperature then the enzyme will denature and not work (that is why you can cook or freeze food to stop it going bad and to make it edible).However, leaving food around in room temperature will mean that the enzymes will be nearer their optimum temperature and therefore the reactions will take place thus the food will become bad. This is exactly what happens when food is kept in lunch packs mainly because the temperature is not controlled.
Researchers who examined more than 700 lunch boxes found that the vast majority of their contents had become so warm that they posed a potential health hazard.
In the first study of its kind, scientists visited nine pre-school child care centers on three occasions, measuring the temperatures of hundreds of sandwiches, yoghurts and other perishables with a heat gun.
They were shocked to find that 97 per cent of meats, 99 per cent of dairy and 99 per cent of vegetables were stored at unsafe temperatures.
Although nearly half of the lunches included an ice pack and 12 per cent were in fridges, of the 1,361, perishable foods tested, only 22 were still at temperatures considered safe.
With the number of school children that carry lunch boxes as part of everyday ritual to school, the risk involved may far outweigh the advantages considering the outcome of this recent research.
The risk however for younger children is particularly high. From the research, children under four years of age are affected by food-related bacterial infections at nearly five times the rate of adults.
Dr. Mrs Agunloye of the department of microbiology, Federal University of Technology, Akure, says that food in a lunch box could be hazardous to health especially if the food is not well processed.
Another reason is the type of flask or warmer used in packaging such foods. For instance, a stainless flask is better at preserving food instead of the plastic ones because they don’t normally condense; condensation changes the taste of food, she said.
In the case of children where the lunch box is usually plastic, after an hour or two, the food ferments and changes in taste making it unfit for consumption.
Stomach upset or food poisoning can result from food that is not properly processed before putting in lunch packs or if the flask is not properly washed. These twin factors can result in food going bad, she said.
A typical example is when you put cooked beans in a plastic flask because after sometime, it starts to ferment and smell. When food is cooked, the reduction potential is reduced which causes it to spoil easily. One has to be careful in consuming such foods because when this happens the micro organisms multiply very fast and begin to work on the food. For people with low immunity, when they eat the food they can easily suffer food poisoning, she stated.
From the result of the above study the team that the use of mayonnaise should be avoided because it spoils quickly; don’t refrigerate food inside insulated bags because this can stop them from becoming cool; and freeze juices and water because it keeps them fresh and helps chill food.
In Britain, it is estimated that a million people get food poisoning each year, of which 20,000 receive hospital treatment and 500 die.
In Nigeria, people have died and are still dying as a result of food poisoning on an annual basis. This could happen as a result of consuming food that had gone bad after been packed in flasks or foods that are not properly processed, Dr Samuel Odama, a medical practitioner stated.
While not trying to discourage people from taking lunch packs to work, especially for school children, it is good to ensure that foods are well processed and kept under controlled temperature to save one the risk of consuming food that had already gone bad, Dr.Odama advised.