True or false? Common food myths debunked

We’ve all grown up hearing tales about certain foods. Some of these “food myths” have merit. Others are less than accurate. And some are flat-out wrong.

Don’t put hot food in the fridge; it’ll grow bacteria 

Answer: That’s not true. There’s a greater risk if you put something on the counter to cool; you might forget about it, says Sarah Lynch, a registered dietician at Muskoka Algonquin Healthcare. Two hours later, bacteria will start to grow. Package the food in a wide, shallow storage container and put that into the fridge. The greater surface area allows the contents to cool more quickly. The only danger of putting something too hot in the fridge is that it could lower the temperature inside, and that could affect the rest of the food. “That’s the theory in this myth,” says Lynch. “It’s not about bacteria growing on the hot food.”

Unrefrigerated mayo will make you sick 

Answer: So many salads and sandwiches are made better with this egg-based spread, but is it
ok to eat the hoagie you left out of the cooler? Most store-bought mayo has additives and preservatives. “It can actually be left on the counter for up to eight hours,” says Lynch. “It’s usually the meat. If left at room temperature, after two hours the sandwich ingredients may develop Staphylococcus, which can cause food borne illness.” 

If you eat a watermelon seed, a watermelon will grow in your stomach 

Answer: “The reality is that the stomach acid would kill the seed and it would never have the chance to germinate, or, if it did pass to the gastrointestinal tract, the conditions inside would inhibit germination,” says Keith Warriner, a food microbiologist with the University of Guelph’s Department of Food Science. Either way, no watermelon. “I think this myth came about for the simple reason that some seeds do have poison in them.” Apricot, cherry, and apple seeds contain cyanide precursors.

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Mouldy food is still safe to eat if you cut off the mouldy bits 

Answer: It depends. Spores will grow quickly on soft foods with high moisture content. “If you see mould on your bread, you’re better to throw out the entire loaf,” says Lynch. Soft cheeses, fruits and vegetables: mind the mould. When you see those little medallions of grey fuzz, that means the spores are also growing inward. It’s time to toss. Hard and semi-hard cheese, however, is safe if you cut the mould off an inch away, says Lynch.

Eating burnt food increases your cancer risk 

Answer: When cooking or grilling food, chemicals form: heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). And a National Cancer Institute study noted that these chemicals were found to cause changes in DNA that “may increase the risk of cancer.” Keith Warriner has a workaround: before grilling, marinate the meat in Guinness (or stout). “It reduces the accumulation of these harmful byproducts. The stout is full of antioxidants and they sequester the byproducts.”

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Eating turkey at Thanksgiving makes you sleepy 

Answer: Turkey does contain tryptophan, which is an amino acid that the body uses (indirectly) to make serotonin, and serotonin helps regulate sleep. But all meat contains tryptophan in similar levels (it’s also found in milk and cheese). What’s more, roasted soybeans and pumpkin seeds are higher in tryptophan than turkey. So, it’s more likely the carb-heavy side dishes along with tryptophan-containing holiday foods—not to mention overeating, alcohol, a cottage full of guests, and a hot oven that’s been cooking the bird all day—that’s making you drowsy.

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Hot dogs = mystery meat 

Answer: Mmm, skeletal bits and tissue. If the label says “pork” or “beef”, the hot dogs have got to contain that very thing. (In Canada, labelling is governed by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.) But “it could be parts that you wouldn’t necessarily eat if you knew about them,” says Lynch. In 2007, the National Library of Medicine evaluated the ingredients in eight common hot dog brands. The report found that the wieners contained a variety of tissues: skeletal muscle including bone, collagen, blood vessels, peripheral nerves, body fat, cartilage, and skin. In general, more expensive hot dogs had more meat, but all hot dogs contained other tissue types (bone and cartilage) “not related to skeletal muscle.” Brain tissue, meanwhile, “was not present.” Well, at least we can say we’re not zombies.

Hangover cure = hair of the dog 

Answer: There’s unfortunately no proof that chasing your hangover with a spicy Caesar is a cure-all. The theory behind this myth is that the hangover symptoms are your body breaking down the alcohol, so drinking more would—temporarily—reverse your throbbing head and nausea. However, Finnish researchers may have found a worthwhile remedy. In a study published in Alcohol and Alcoholism they found that a vitamin supplement of L-cysteine, an amino acid, prevented or alleviated symptoms such as nausea, headache, stress, and anxiety. Cheers to that! If you can stomach something on hangover day, eat foods that contain L-cysteine: meat, dairy products, eggs, nuts, seeds, and legumes.

Drinking alcohol warms you up 

Answer: You might feel warm after taking a few shots—this could just be due to the burning sensation you get as it goes down. And you might sweat while drinking. (Even after a big meal, you start sweating because you’re burning calories, says Warriner.) But drinking alcohol actually lowers your body temperature. When you drink, the alcohol causes your blood vessels to widen and relax, increasing the blood flow to your skin. This is really what gives you the impression of feeling warm.

The five-second rule rules 

Answer: Do you want to play Russian roulette with your intestines? A study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology delved scientifically into this one, using watermelon, bread and butter, and gummy candy. Co-author Donald W. Shaffner notes there was no amount of time (including a fraction of a second) that he and his colleagues didn’t see at least some bacteria transfer. “That said, the devil is in the details.” If you drop something on a completely sterile floor, you’re in the clear; there’s nothing to contaminate your food. Wet food is at higher risk than dry food because the moisture makes it easy for the bacteria to transfer. “I’m convinced that people eat food off the floor all the time,” says Shaffner. “I do every so often, and as far as I know I’ve never gotten sick from the practice.” Still, do not eat food that’s fallen on the floor where someone has recently vomited, he says. We concur. And have just lost our appetites.

This story was originally published in the October 2021 issue of Cottage Life, as part of the package “Red sky at night, could be right.” 

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