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A Master Chef's Tips on Avoiding Germs in Food

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Whether you love it or hate it, reality television is here to stay as audiences continue to be lured into witnessing the plights of normal individuals who face challenges that bring out not only their strengths, but in many cases, their weaknesses, fears and even life stories.

One such captivating soul is Monti Carlo, who appeared on Season 3 of the hit show MasterChef. During the run of the program, Monti engaged the audience not through an eccentric style that took over the competition but rather through a no-nonsense style that could only come from a single mother of a young boy. While she continued to impress the judges down to the top five contestants, she never lost the hometown spirit of a girl that grew up on a Puerto Rico farm and learned that maintaining a good health was all about balance.

Since her departure from the show, Monti has started up a new series called "Lunch Lady" in which she uses the Julia Child cooking show format to help parents prepare healthy and delicious lunches for their kids at school. Her emphasis is on making sure kids have at least one safe part of their day in the midst of a potentially unhealthy environment.

I wanted to find out more about Monti's passion for health and food in the hopes of talking about how to have a germ-free lunch. What I learned was that her relationship with germs had been life-long and that food has led her to a wonderfully balanced lifestyle. She said:

"I used to live on a farm as child and was surrounded by germs. I never really made much of it but as I grew older, I became a germaphobe. That lasted for some time although ended quickly when I had [her son] Danger. All of a sudden germs were everywhere and there was little I could do to keep them away".

Monti's experience is not unlike every other parent, who has to deal with the burgeoning immune systems of their little ones. The first few years of life are the most important and require a combination of patience and nerves of steel as children come into contact with germs and eventually learn how to either co-exist with them or fight them off. For Monti, she realized that if the environment was going to potentially harm her son, then at least the food he ate should be as healthy as possible to help his immune system along the way.

"Believe it or not, I never used to cook but I realized that for my health and Danger's I had to return back to the simple life that I had in Puerto Rico. I realized that food, which is a necessity, could also be a passion as it is one of the few things we can control. I started reading more and learning how cooking related to overall health. I realized that buying fresh, local food was better than buying processed food from the grocery store. And quite honestly, it was easier, faster and healthier. I was hooked!"

From a purely microbiological perspective, Monti's choices are well supported by evidence. Over the last 40 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the importation and processing of foods due in part to a changing diet and an increase in the demand for certain food items. Not surprisingly, the number of foodborne outbreaks as well as the diversity of foodborne pathogens has similarly gone up. Whereas there were only a handful of potential foodborne illnesses, there are now over 250 that could cause gastrointestinal distress. More interesting is the fact that over half of all outbreaks in the last 15 years have been associated with eating away from the home.

There is a downside to eating at home as the same study revealed about 20 per cent of infections occurred at the home, primarily due to a lack of proper cleanliness when handling and preparing high risk foods such as raw meats. I asked Monti about this unfortunate trend of illness in the home and whether she had any problems: "I've never really had a problem with foods," she told me. "I tend to be focused on making sure that I stay true to the farm way of life and that has always helped me stay safe." I had intended to move on but then she added, "MRSA, however, was a different story."

Monti's son had experienced a half year struggle with community acquired methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in which his body could simply not fight off the infection. Food choices were not helpful nor were any of the cleaning agents found on the shelves of grocery stores. In order to stop the infection and move on with their lives, Monti had to change her life yet again.

"I never returned to germaphobia but I did realize that everything was potentially at risk. I had to replace almost all the items in my home to remove any possible trace of the bacteria. I also learned that many of the cleaning products sold in the market were not as good as some common sense ideas that actually involved food -- just not eating it."

Monti went on to provide me a litany of natural options for household cleaning that can be found in the kitchen. Some, such as using vinegar and baking soda as a disinfectant and lemon as an antimicrobial wash are traditional whereas the use of coffee grounds in her drain to keep the bacteria from growing was ingenious. Coffee has antimicrobial properties that prevent the growth of bacteria on various surfaces including teeth. Perhaps her most ingenious idea is a food-based air freshener made by boiling cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruit. Aerosolized cinnamon and cloves have various antimicrobial properties while the use of citrus fruits can help to regulate the immune system. Monti swears that it also smells great.

Amidst all the news of outbreaks, epidemics and pandemics over the last few years, there has been little time to delve deeper into the natural world and identify how certain items in our home -- including food -- can be multipurpose and help us to live in a more balanced way. There is no doubt a place for disinfection and Monti agrees, stating that she uses diluted bleach when things get a little too grimy, but overall, a more natural means of life is inspiring and a throwback to a time long gone by.

In the 4th Century, the great physician Hippocrates in his treatise On Airs, Waters and Places wrote about the uniqueness of each place on earth in terms of climate, food and water and germs. He extoled the need for doctors to learn about the environment and find the balance that exists between humans and the local world around them; only then could the art of medicine and health be possible.

In that same way, Monti Carlo, has learned through the medium of food rather than medicine to learn more about her environment and practice what I consider to be a fascinating art of foodborne health.

 
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