Food Safety, Nutrition and COVID-19 by Tania Logan, Dietitian and Diabetes Educator

Ilze GroblerCOVID-19, Dietetics

5 Frequently asked questions about food safety, nutrition and COVID-19

FAQ 1: What are the risks when grocery shopping and what can I do to minimise these risks?

Going to the supermarket to buy essentials is one of the few things we can still leave the house to do, and for many of us it is unavoidable.  

The biggest risk when being out at the supermarket is being around other people.  That is why it is important to maintain a safe, physical distance of at least 1.5 metres from other shoppers and staff. The other risk is touching surfaces that may be contaminated.  These include shopping baskets, trolleys and the screens at the self-service checkout. The major supermarkets have done an excellent job over the past few weeks to change their processes and practices to reduce risk to their staff and customers.  You may have noticed increased cleaning of trolleys and self-service checkouts as well as hand sanitiser on entry.  They are also encouraging physical distancing and limiting the number of people in the store.

There are a number of things that we can do ourselves to reduce our risk further.

  • Minimise the amount of time you are at the supermarket.  

I have always been an advocate of planning meals and writing a shopping list.  If you don’t already do it, this is an incredibly useful habit to adopt now. Write your shopping list before you go so you know what you need to buy. Get in, get what you need, and get out as quickly and efficiently as possible.  

  • Shop by yourself if possible.  

It always takes me more time to shop for groceries if I have “helpers”.  If you shop alone with your list, you can be much more efficient.  It also means fewer members of the household are potentially exposed.

  • Maintain physical distancing.

The latest information indicates that we are at a very low risk of contracting COVID-19 if we are in close contact with someone for less than 15 minutes.  Staying at least 1.5 meters away from other people reduces your risk of possible exposure. 

  • Avoid touching your face.

It is possible that your shopping basket, trolley or self-service checkout may be contaminated. The most important thing to do while you are out is not touch your face.

  • Wash your hands.

As soon as you get home, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.   The World Health Organisation has an excellent video on hand washing if you are unsure how to do it properly.

Fortunately, the more vulnerable members of the community have an alternative, with the major supermarkets offering priority on home delivery of online orders.  Eligible customers include seniors, people with a disability and those with compromised immunity or who are required to self isolate.

FAQ 2: Should I wear a mask and gloves when I go shopping?

The recent rise in community transmission of COVID-19 in Australia means that it is encouraged or mandatory to wear a mask in some places. When used properly, wearing a mask may help provide an additional layer of protection for you and those around you, if you are in an area with community transmission.  This is in addition to physical distancing and maintaining good hand hygiene.  The Australian Government has a useful video on how to wear a mask properly.

If you would like to wear a mask but have been unable to purchase any, the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services has simple instructions on how to make a fabric mask.

Wearing gloves might seem like a convenient way to minimise contamination and keep hands clean but there is no evidence that this is helpful either.  Wearing gloves simply means that any contamination is going to be on the gloves rather than someone’s hands, but it doesn’t stop it from being transferred.  If you touch something contaminated and then touch your face, the gloves won’t stop you from getting infected. Gloves can also make people feel a sense of protection which means they might be less aware that their hands are contaminated. Instead of wearing gloves, the experts agree that the most important things you can do to minimise risk is to not touch your face and wash your hands.

FAQ 3: Can food packaging be contaminated?

The virus responsible for COVID-19 can survive on surfaces like food packaging (cardboard, plastic, glass and metal) from somewhere between a few hours and a few days.  There are some suggestions that we should be sanitising everything that we bring inside our homes, however Food Standards Australia New Zealand state that there is no current evidence that COVID-19 can be transmitted through food and no reported cases of COVID-19 having been linked to contamination of food.

Good general hygiene practises recommend that lids and cans should be wiped or washed with warm, soapy water before opening, to prevent any harmful particles falling into the food.  Otherwise, the Produce Marketing Association Australia – New Zealand state that there is no need to sanitise groceries or their packaging.

FAQ 4: What about fresh fruit and vegetables?

Good food hygiene involves thoroughly washing fruit and vegetables under cold running water before eating or cooking.  This removes any dirt, pesticides or other harmful microorganisms on the surface of the produce.  Fruit and vegetables can be dried with a clean cloth or paper towel.

All fruit and vegetables should be washed including those that we peel before eating.  This includes bananas, avocados, citrus fruit, melons, and pumpkin.  It is important to wash fresh produce even if you don’t eat the peel, so dirt and microorganisms aren’t transferred to the inside of the food as it is cut or handled.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand state thatis not necessary to use soap, disinfectants or detergents to wash food.  In fact, they may be harmful.  These chemicals are not designed for this purpose and may make the food unsafe to eat.

FAQ 5: Are there any foods that will boost my immune system and protect me from COVID 19?

There are no particular foods or supplements that will protect from COVID-19 or significantly boost immune function. Instead it is important to maintain a healthy, nutritious diet that includes a wide variety of foods to strengthen and support your immune system.

This includes choosing plenty of plant based foods including fruit, vegetables and legumes, nuts and seeds, and wholegrains. These are full of important vitamins and minerals, they contain fibre that helps keep our gut healthy, and antioxidants that help fight disease.

My previous blog on Winter Wellness, provides more ideas on healthy eating to nourish your immune system and comfort your soul.

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