So should you be worried? Yes, and no, says Ted Labuza, Ph.D., a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. Foodborne illnesses can be a serious health risk: More than 300,000 people check into a hospital due to one annually, and 5,000 die. "But the overall danger is on the decline, thanks to better technology and stricter governmental regulations," says Labuza.
Plus, you have a lot more control over getting sick than you might think. "Taking a few precautions when preparing your food can drastically reduce your odds of poisoning," says Labuza. Read on to find out the risks behind five common threats, and how you can safeguard your health.
The Scare: Bacteria filled eggs
The Real Deal: The major source of Salmonella poisoning is raw or undercooked eggs. The cause can be traced to certain animal farmers. "Poultry waste, which carries Salmonella, is often reused as chicken feed," says Labuza. (The practice isn't allowed in certified organic farming, so those eggs are often a safer bet.) If you've been exposed, you'll show symptoms—a fever, cramps, and diarrhea—anywhere from 12 hours to three days after you ate Salmonella-tinged food. The infection usually goes away on its own in about a week, but see a doctor if symptoms persist or if you find blood in your stool. Compared with other bacteria, Salmonella is one of the most dangerous; about 600 people die from it yearly. The microbe can travel to the bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection, especially in pregnant women, young children, and the elderly.
Avoid eating raw or undercooked eggs
"For homemade ice cream and Hollandaise sauces, buy pasteurized eggs or liquid substitutes like Egg Beaters," recommends Arun Bhunia, Ph.D., a professor of food microbiology at Purdue University. The pasteurization process ensures that the eggs have been rapidly heated to kill all bacteria. When making egg dishes, opt for poached, hard-boiled, scrambled dry, or over hard instead of sunny-side up.
Keep surfaces clean
Place a paper towel under the lip of the pan or bowl when you break eggs to catch dribbles, wipe down countertops with disinfectant afterward, and wash your hands after handling eggs.
Animal studies suggest that these "good" bacteria may protect the digestive tract against invasions of Salmonella. Find probiotics in supplements, such as Florastor and Metagenics Ultra Flora Plus DF, or in yogurt with live cultures.