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America's wildest food habits, revealed

By Karen Cicero, Health.com
updated 1:30 PM EDT, Mon March 25, 2013
73% of you lick the spoon while cooking. Yucky? Yep. Illness-inducing? Could be.
73% of you lick the spoon while cooking. Yucky? Yep. Illness-inducing? Could be.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Don't double-dip! Researchers found dips gained 100,000 bacteria after testers dug in
  • 48% of poll-takers are probably wasting perfectly good food by listening to use-by dates
  • Cockroaches can transmit organisms like salmonella that cause foodborne illness

(Health.com) -- With all the hand sanitizer America bought last year ($190 million worth, to be exact), you'd think that our germphobia might have made us safer cooks.

But as a Health.com poll of some 400 readers and 100 professional chefs reveals, our counter intelligence is still somewhat... medieval. Here's how to make sure the only thing you spread -- and get! -- is good cheer.

73% of you lick the spoon while cooking Yucky? Yep. Illness-inducing? Could be.

"If it's batter that will get baked or something on the stove that's simmering, like sauce, that's hot enough to kill mouth bacteria," says O. Peter Snyder, a food-safety expert at the Hospitality Institute of Technology and Management in St. Paul, Minnesota. But if it's salad fixings or frosting on a cake you're preparing, you could introduce strep or the flu into the bowl and infect people.

Even if you don't feel sick, trouble could be brewing, especially during wintertime when germs run rampant, says Philip Tierno, director of clinical microbiology and immunology at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York.

To avoid making Germ Chocolate Cake (or horrifying your guests), keep a bowl and a teaspoon by the pot or dish and ladle in food to taste.

Health.com: How to keep your kitchen clean, healthy and safe

76% of you double-dip

It's a party foul, all right: Researchers at Clemson University in South Carolina found that dips gained 100,000 bacteria after testers dug in.

"Double-dipping is the bacterial equivalent of French kissing everyone in the room," says study author and food scientist Paul Dawson. Even if guests don't double-dip, fingers in bowls still germ up food. One study found that about 10% of a random sampling of people had E. coli on their mitts -- an indication of fecal contamination (yikes!). Per records from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, salsa, guacamole, and Mexican dip account for 4% of outbreaks of restaurant food poisoning. In 20% of those cases, food workers' fingers contaminated the dip.

Bottom line: It's best to steer clear of ye olde communal dip, Tierno says. If you're hosting, serve dip with a spoon, or pull a Martha and portion into individual mini cups and stand sliced veggies or pretzel sticks inside.

Health.com: 10 ways to stay healthy during the holidays

54% of you serve food dropped on the floor

Yet more risky kitchen business. In another study from Dawson, fallen food picked up salmonella from the floor almost immediately (so much for that five-second rule). And while more bacteria stuck to moist foods like fruit and meat than dry ones like nuts, no food escaped unscathed.

"I wouldn't eat anything off my kitchen floor," Dawson says. "Even if you have many times without a problem, one day it will probably catch up to you."

Safe options for resuscitating fallen food:

-- Slice off the part that touched the floor

-- Reheat food to 165° F

-- Turn crudité into a stir-fry or sliced fruit into a warm compote Health.com: How to keep your kitchen germ-free

52% of you dish out food past the expiration date

Spoiler alert: There's no harm done. In fact, the other 48% of poll-takers are probably wasting perfectly good food.

"Dates on food have more to do with quality than safety," says Joan Salge Blake, a spokesperson with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Per the United States Department of Agriculture, dried goods such as crackers or chips that are past their "use-by" date aren't usually a problem. Ditto for milk, cheese, or yogurt that are dated by a few days and don't smell foul or have mold (the blue-green stuff can cause gastric distress).

Eggs are typically fine for as long as three to five weeks past the day you bought them. However, avoid fresh meat, chicken, turkey, or fish that's more than a few days past its use-by date -- or you risk food poisoning. Health.com: When it's OK to eat moldy food -- and when it's not 31% of you don't toss food with bugs

With many of us buying organic these days, it's more likely that you'll spot an aphid or earthworm on your produce. Screech if you must, then remove it and keep eating -- it's harmless, says Sarah Klein, a food safety expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Ditto for a random ant or spider on food. One exception: If you see a cockroach in a food, it hitched a ride from the kitchen, not the farm. Since these creepy crawlies can transmit organisms like salmonella that cause food-borne illness, dump the dish.

Copyright Health Magazine 2011

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