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Food safety for packed lunches (old and new wisdom)
Posted By Biggie On March 27, 2007 @ 6:40 am In equipment, parenthacks, tips, tutorial or how to | 642 Comments
A major concern when packing lunch is making sure the food won’t spoil by the time it’s eaten. I’ve been doing some research on the different methods Japanese and Americans recommend for safe packed food, to reconcile traditional wisdom with new methods and research on foods with antibacterial properties. There are many different methods, I’ve described them in detail below with sources. These are only guidelines for food safety; please make your own decisions about what you’re comfortable packing and eating (I am not a food safety authority).
An outline of methods to ensure your packed lunch won’t spoil (details behind the cut):
1. Incorporate food and products with antibacterial properties
Japanese bento cookbooks often suggest packing foods with antibacterial properties in lunches in order to keep food from spoiling. Suggested foods include umeboshi (pickled plum), wasabi, ginger, karashi, salt, shiso, parsley and vinegar (i.e. making sushi rice, or putting an umeboshi or a tablespoon or two of rice vinegar in the cooking water when making rice). Some books recommend wiping the inside of the bento box with a slice of ginger before packing.New USDA- and NSF-funded research on foods with antibacterial properties has yielded a number of additions that are interesting when packing non-Japanese food for lunch. The strongest antibacterial foods (killing all bacteria) are evidently garlic, onion, allspice and oregano. The second strongest (killing up to 80% of bacteria) include thyme, cinnamon, tarragon, cumin (and lemongrass). The third strongest (killing up to 75% of bacteria) are capsicums, including chilies and hot peppers. The fourth strongest (killing 25% of bacteria) include white and black pepper, ginger, anise seed, celery seed, and lemon or lime juice. Honey has antibacterial properties, and the dodecenal compound in cilantro/coriander (both fresh leaves and seeds) is evidently one of the stronger antibacterials as well. (see sources 1 - 3 below)
There are a number of bento products in Japan that have been treated with an antibacterial coating (i.e. flavorless compounds extracted from wasabi, etc.), designed to help stave off microbial growth in packed lunches. These include aluminum food cups for cooking, plastic sheets that you place on the surface of your packed food, and food dividers (”baran”) that look like sushi grass. These must be touching the surface of the food to be effective. I bought the products below at local Japanese dollar stores and markets in San Francisco; click the photos for larger views and details. EDIT: Not all food dividers and food cups are antibacterial; they must have the Japanese characters that mean “antibacterial” on them (click the product photos below for a larger view with the appropriate characters pointed out in a note on the photo).
2. Keep it Clean: Don’t introduce bacteria into the lunch when packing
Make sure your hands, food prep area, utensils and lunch containers are clean. When possible, use utensils (chopsticks, spoon, tongs, plastic wrap) to place, mold and arrange unwrapped food in your lunch container. If you’re using a bento box with a rubber packing strip around the lid, be sure to periodically remove, wash and thoroughly dry the packing seal (and the groove in the lid). This will keep your box clean and ensure that the packing strip does not crack, which would leave you without a watertight seal.
3. Avoid the temperature danger zone with perishable foods
4. Pack less perishable foods, especially in the summer. Rice becomes hard and unappetizing when refrigerated at low temperatures, so many Japanese forego refrigeration and cold packs for their rice-based bentos, choosing instead to incorporate antibacterial foods, pack foods that are less likely to spoil, and make their food less perishable through traditional cooking/packing methods.
A. Extra precautions for hot weather
B. Handy foods that survive summer heat
C. How to make dishes less perishable
1) 1998 Cornell study on antibacterial spices:  http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/98/3.5.98/spices.html
2) Cilantro article:  http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-05/acs-is052404.php
3) CookWise, Shirley O. Corriher, 1997.
4) The New Professional Chef, Culinary Institute of America
5) USDA lunch food safety guidelines:  http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ftteats.html#lunch
6) USDA Freezing/Refrigerating time chart:  http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fttstore.html
7) Aijo Tappuri! Obento, Shufu no Tomo, 2007.
Obento Daijiten, Index Magazine, 2005.
Article printed from Lunch in a Box: Building a Better Bento: http://lunchinabox.net
URL to article: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/03/27/food-safety-for-packed-lunches-old-and-new-wisdom/
URLs in this post:
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 USDA’s food safety page: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/a2z-toc.html
 300ml food jars : http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchinabox/171566339/in/set-72157594150632817
 thermal lunch jars: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchinabox/156857193/in/set-72157594150632817/
 Mr. Bento or Ms. Bento: http://www.zojirushi.com/ourproducts/lunchjars/lunchjars.html
 Laptop Lunchbox: http://www.shareasale.com/r.cfm?u=229259&b=53631&m=9823&afftrack=&urllink=www%2Ereus
 Fit N Fresh containers: http://www.fit-fresh.com/
 Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchinabox/430895076/
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 Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/lunchinabox/420502172/
 Canned fruit that has been frozen: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/04/27/pasta-salad-lunches/
 http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/98/3.5.98/spices.html: http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/98/3.5.98/spices.html
 http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-05/acs-is052404.php: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-05/acs-is052404.php
 http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ftteats.html#lunch: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/ftteats.html#lunch
 http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fttstore.html: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fttstore.html
 Need for speed: A mommy’s lunch manifesto: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/04/23/need-for-speed-a-mommys-lunch-manifesto/
 Food safety for packed lunches: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/05/08/food-safety-for-packed-lunches-updated/
 How to pack a bento lunch and use “gap fillers”: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/06/11/guide-to-bento-packing-and-gap-fillers/
 Choosing the right size bento box: http://lunchinabox.net/2007/03/07/guide-to-choosing-the-right-size-bento-box/
 Biggie’s list of top speed tips, tutorials and equipment reviews: http://lunchinabox.net/top-tips/
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