By Natalee Goodman

All content or opinions expressed in this article are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice. Alternative Food Network Inc. is not responsible or liable for any diagnosis made by a reader based on the content of this site. Always seek advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare practitioner if you’re in any way concerned about your health.

Everyone’s had it – food poisoning. But while you clutched your stomach, did the thought cross your mind, “How could I have avoided this?” According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 600 million people per year get sick from eating contaminated food. On a recent episode  about food poisoning, parasites and food safety on Alternative Food Network’s podcast series Doctors+, Dr. Ashley Salomon, M.D., discusses what foodborne illness is and how to avoid it both at home and while travelling.

Difference Between Foodborne Illness and Food Poisoning
Food poisoning and foodborne illness are used interchangeably, but technically foodborne illness is an infection that results from eating food contaminated with parasites, viruses or bacteria. Foodborne illness can also include an allergic reaction. Food poisoning is a type of foodborne illness wherein one consumes the toxins from bacteria.

Symptoms can last from 1-7 days but sometimes foodborne illness caused by parasites or bacteria can cause irritable bowel symptoms for a prolonged period of time.

Causes of Foodborne Illnesses
There are four categories of foodborne illness: bacterial, parasitic, viral and toxins.

Nearly all foods can become contaminated with harmful bacteria and parasites but the most common are:

  • Raw/Unpasteurized Milk and Dairy: Bacteria including campylobacter, staph infection, listeria, and salmonella
  • Raw or Uncooked Seafood: Parasitic infections such as tapeworms, roundworms, and vibrio
  • Raw Eggs: Salmonella via the egg shell itself
  • Raw or Undercooked Meat and Poultry: Campylobacter, E. coli, salmonella, listeria, parasites
  • Canned Goods: Clostridium botulinum or botulism which can be very dangerous because it can cause neurological issues
  • Fresh Produce: coli from contact with manure that could contain animal/human waste, salmonella, listeria
  • Drinking Water: Drinking water could contain cryptosporidium or giardia.
  • Rice: Commonly cooked and left to sit, contracting and harbouring bacteria.

The most common foodborne virus in the U.S. is Norovirus, followed by Rotavirus and Hepatitis A.

When to Consult a Doctor
Trying to stay hydrated with small sips of water or ginger tea is recommended. Electrolyte tablets can also help. Dehydration can exasperate symptoms, making someone who is ill feel even sicker and more lethargic. If illness persists and a person is getting dehydrated, it may be time to see a doctor. Dr. Salomon suggests that if someone has trouble taking fluids, has bloody stool, chills, shakes, chest pain, shallow breathing or severe abdominal pain, they should seek medical attention.

For patients with prolonged symptoms over weeks and months, Dr. Salomon mentions in the podcast that she sends stool tests to advanced labs as it is extremely difficult to catch certain types of parasites and bacteria in regular stool tests.

According to Dr. Salomon, foodborne illness is a great area of integrative medicine because “there’s a place for using pharmaceuticals and then there’s a phenomenal place for using supplements that help detoxification, and herbs that can help the immune system and are antimicrobial.”

High Risk Groups for Foodborne Illness
Anyone can get a foodborne illness but certain people who have lower immune systems can be more susceptible. Pregnant women, young children and seniors as well as people suffering from cancer, chronic illness and Lyme disease are all at higher risk due to their weaker immune systems. People who are susceptible to foodborne illnesses should also avoid soft cheese and raw dairy and make sure that all of their food is both washed and cooked thoroughly.

Prevention Tips
To aid in prevention of these illnesses and infections, Dr. Salomon reminds listeners to be aware of what you’re eating, making sure that everything is cooked thoroughly. When at home, have a temperature gauge so you can verify that your food is properly cooked. Use a separate cutting board for meat/seafood/poultry and diligently wash the cutting board and your hands to eliminate cross contamination. Wash countertops thoroughly and be sure to wash all produce – even organic produce could be contaminated! When defrosting or marinating food, leave it in the fridge and not on the counter. With canned food, make sure the can is not dented or warped and do not use any food that is foul smelling. Lastly, think twice before eating all that raw sushi!

Travel Tips
In AFN’s podcast, Dr. Ashley provides tips for travellers to aid in the prevention of foodborne illness but she also reminds us that it is difficult to fully eliminate the possibility of contracting one of these illnesses when travelling.

The number one prevention tip is to always wash your hands after using the bathroom and before eating. Opt for fully cooked vegetables, bottled water and fruits with peels that protect the inner edible portion of the fruit such as oranges or bananas. Water quality varies from country to country and sometimes even bottled water is tap water with the cap resealed. Avoiding ice is also recommended.

In order to eliminate as many toxins as possible, Dr. Salomon recommends buying a handheld water filtration system that has reverse osmosis, or bringing water to a full boil and letting it boil for 60 seconds before drinking. Iodine tablets also work well in a pinch. From a more holistic standpoint, Dr. Salomon also recommends travelling with activated charcoal. It can mop up toxins and reduce nausea and abdominal pain. Lastly, probiotics are great for helping mend the gut lining after an episode, and while many probiotics require refrigeration, there are some that can be stored at room temperature.

For people who don’t have a contraindication, immune supportive herbs can also be used. In the podcast, Dr. Salomon lists garlic extract, garlic oil, oregano oil, ginger, thyme, olive leaf and cloves as examples of herbs that are anti-viral.

Eating foods that are high in spices such as curries and foods with garlic, onion, oregano and thyme are anti-viral and anti-bacterial. Examples of foods that are anti-parasitic are papaya, pumpkin seeds, clove, thyme, oregano and black walnut. Manuka honey is also a great anti-bacterial. Anti-parasitic herbs are great to take when travelling, but these are strong so it is advisable to consult with a licensed medical practitioner.

Other recommended resources:

Food safety: GI Society

Travel safety: CDC