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Your guide to buying the RIGHT fruit & veggies ( and storing them too).

WE ARE LIVING in an era of swine and bird flu, salmonella and E. coli. Pesticides and insecticides are sprinkled profusely on the fruit and vegetables we buy. This produce is grown in open fields surrounded by refuse, and transported in dirty vehicles. En route, they are sprayed with contaminated water. The picture is gloomier in the case of meat, poultry and fish. Where local shopkeepers source these from remains a mystery for the common man. Added to this unsavoury fact is the dismal condition of factory farms. Considering this scenario, it is even more crucial for all of us to select the fresh food we eat carefully, and also clean and store this in the best possible way to avoid food- borne illnesses.

The vegetables and fruit you eat changes many hands before they reach your kitchen countertop.

While they are loaded with nutrients, they also contain a variety of chemicals, bacteria and microbes. Even those of us who are not scientists are aware of the impact of these poisonous chemicals and deadly bacteria on our bodies. Yet we are unsure about what to do to protect ourselves.

" Consumers become victims of serious ailments due to the presence of the " Dirty Dozen" Persistent Organic Pollutants ( POPs). The POPs enter the water reservoirs and farm products through banned chemicals used in pesticides. The most common deadly pesticides used are D. D. T., Aldrin, Chlordane, Dieldrin, Endrin, Heptachlor, H. C. B., Mirex, Toxaphene, P. C. Bs, Dioxins and Furans," says Bejon Misra, consumer expert and member, Food Safety & Standards Authority of India.

BUY THEM RIGHT

IN THE absence of cold chain in India, plenty of damage is done to vegetables and fruit. Bruises, cracks and blemishes are common. "Cracks in vegetables or fruit make way for the entry of all kinds of micro organisms. Also, contaminated water seeps into them when these are washed at the grocery stores," says dietician Dr Sushma Sharma. Bruises leach the nutrients from fruit and vegetables.

So, avoid buying bruised and cracked produce, and in case you do get a damaged piece by mistake, make sure you cut this portion off before eating. Take special care with green leafy vegetables, as these are usually tainted by the bacterium E. Coli. The Environmental Working Group reports that spinach is one of the dozen most heavily pesticide-contaminated vegetable. "While buying spinach, take care to avoid broken or bruised leaves.

Nowadays, we get precut spinach in the market, which should never be bought as this contains mud, contaminated water and microorganisms. Choose cabbage heads that are firm and dense and free of bruises. Severe damage to the outer leaves is suggestive of worm damage or decay in the inner core," says Neelanjana Singh, Senior Dietician, Pushpawati Singhania Research Institute.

Buy fruit which is firm and appears to have a natural colour. Over-bright vegetables and fruit are likely to contain artificial colours and additives, commonly added to make produce attractive. "Artificially coloured fruit and vegetables seem too bright and may not be evenly coloured. If you look properly, you will find patches which are not deep coloured," says Neelanjana.

STICK TO SEASONAL

IT REALLY isn't worth paying so much for off- season favourite fruit and vegetables. These are grown under unnatural conditions and preserved in cold storage and their nutritional value is very low. All you get really is the taste. In fact, certain vegetables such as mushrooms should be bought only in season. Mushrooms may be either of an edible or non- edible wild variety. It is difficult to differentiate between the two, which is why they should be bought from a reliable source. Winter is a good time to buy them while the rainy season is the worst season.

WASH THEM RIGHT

NOWADAYS, a variety of chemicals is used to ripen fruit. Wax is also applied to fruit to keep it fresher for longer and non- edible oils are applied to make them appear shiny. To get rid of all this, it's best to soak fruit in lukewarm water for 10 minutes before washing it under running water.

Vegetables are grown in open fields, and run the risk of infestation.

Also, most vegetables and fruit are laced with pesticides, insecticides, bacteria, micro organisms and other contaminants.

So a hurried washing just before cooking or eating isn't good enough. It's best to wash this produce under running tap water rather than in stored water as the thrust of the running water washes away the contaminants. Leafy vegetables should be washed thoroughly before they are chopped. " Leafy vegetables contain higher amounts of water soluble nutrients which are lost when we put them in water. That's also the reason we should not soak them in water for too long. People use soap or liquid detergents to clean fruit and vegetables, but this doesn't really help. " The best way to disinfect fruit and vegetables especially leafy vegetables is to soak them in chlorinated water for 10 minutes and rinse them under running water.

Potassium permanganate or salted water can also to be used.

Soaking them in vinegar is also good, as it is considered a mild disinfectant," says Neelanjana.

A soft brush can also be used to clean harder vegetables but not those with a tender skin like tomatoes.

Like leafy vegetables, root vegetables such as carrot, turnip, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radish and beetroot should be handled with care. As root vegetables are in close contact with the soil they carry plenty of microbes on their surface. If the roots are still attached to them, remove them before you store them to prevent moisture loss. Also, it is better to peel all root vegetables -- including carrots and radishes -- before eating or cooking them. Peeling other vegetables is not advisable as they contain antioxidants and fibre which are good for health.

RULES OF STORAGE

Don't store for too long

STOCKING veggies and fruit can save time but isn't the best idea as these lose essential nutrients over time. Several days are generally expended in the transportation of vegetables and fruit before they reach the shops. Even more time is lost before they enter your refrigerator.

At this point, they have already lost plenty of nutrients and may lose up to 50 percent of their Vitamin C content and other nutrients such as beta carotene over the following week. " We all store huge amounts of potatoes in our kitchens, which become limp with time due to dehydration.

The nutrients in the vegetables are dissolved in its moisture content, and gets lost when this water dries up due to oxidisation," says Geetika Ahluwalia, chief dietician, Delhi Heart and Lung Institute. Also, storing vegetables for a long duration leads to sprouting.

When potatoes sprout, the starch in the potatoes is converted into sugar, which can be toxic.

Also, throw away any canned foods that have damaged, including denting, swelling ( a sign of contamination), or leakage as they can contaminate fruit and vegetables and other food stuff.

Fridge temperature

AFTER vegetables and fruit is washed, this should be dried properly and storied in ziploc packets. Before you put these into the fridge, check that the temperature of the fridge is at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit and freezer is at or below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Allowing your fridge or freezer to get too warm can decrease the shelf life of produce and increase the growth of unhealthy bacteria.

Vegetables and fruit should be stored in an area away from cooked vegetables and meat products and uncooked meat to avoid cross- contamination.

" Food poisoning is caused by cross contamination which occurs when bacteria are transferred from cooked food and meat products or raw meat to fruit and vegetables," says Geetika.

Frozen vegetables such as peas and corn in usually consumed in small portions. Once opened, close the packet tightly and immediately refrigerate it before it defrosts to avoid bacterial contamination.

Preserve nutrients

STORING cooked vegetables is better than storing partially- cut ones. Once a vegetable is cut it starts loses its nutritional value, which is why the colour changes to brown. There is nothing wrong in cutting off the top layer which has turned brown and using the rest of the vegetable, but make sure you cut off a thick layer. Like vegetables, fruit should not be cut and stored as the vitamins and minerals in this starts evaporating once this is cut. Contamination by harmful bacteria is also more likely when this is exposed to air. As fruit like water melon and papaya cannot be consumed in one go, store them in an air- tight container or packet in a refrigerator.

But, consume them within 24 hours. Also, don't buy too much unripened fruit such as banana and papaya as this is prone to infestation by insects and rodents. So it's best to cover this properly in a newspaper and store it in a place where it is most likely to stay untouched.

harsha. chawla @ mailtoday. in

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Dec 29, 2009
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