Health Buzz: Sack Lunches Often Reach Unsafe Temperatures

Food-borne illnesses still a threat; healthy school lunch ideas.

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Study: Packed Lunches Often Reach Unsafe Temperatures

The lunches parents send their kids to school with almost always reach unsafe temperatures. So suggests a new study by Texas researchers, who tested 705 lunches and found that 90 percent were warm enough to foment the growth of bacteria—potentially leading to food poisoning. Even lunches cooled by ice packs were typically warm enough to be dangerous, according to findings published today in Pediatrics. "This study should be an eye-opener for the public," study author Fawaz Almansour, a researcher in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas—Austin, told Time. "We don't always know what got us sick. You can't easily point a finger at a particular food, but sack lunches could easily be the culprit." Parents can minimize the risk by choosing vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, while avoiding spoil-prone foods, such as meat and dairy products. The study authors also suggest skipping the mayonnaise, since it contains eggs and tends to go bad quickly. And while refrigerating a packed lunch is ideal, parents should teach kids to first remove food from insulated lunch boxes, which can prevent food from staying cool in the refrigerator.

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    Ten years ago, while training to be a family doctor, U.S. News blogger Kenny Lin spent several months admitting sick children to a hospital's pediatric ward. He almost always treated toddlers for severe dehydration—the result of vomiting and diarrhea. Most of them had picked up a highly contagious bug called rotavirus from contaminated food, feces, or other children. It was easy to spot them, with their sunken eyes and parched skin, Lin reported in February. They looked desperately thirsty, but were too ill to drink. Unfortunately, the only treatment for most food-borne illnesses was—and still is—fluid replacement and time.

    Today, the infant rotavirus vaccine has made this type of food poisoning much less common. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still estimates that food-borne illnesses affect 48 million American children and adults each year, leading to 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. In recent years, infectious bacteria such as salmonella have been implicated in outbreaks of food poisoning from contaminated eggs, peanut butter, and raw vegetables. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine revisits the large salmonella outbreak in 2008 that sickened at least 1,500 people in 43 states and Canada. More than 300 people were hospitalized, and two died. Months of meticulous detective work by public health officials from the CDC and state health departments eventually traced the source to tainted jalapeño and serrano peppers grown on a single farm in Mexico. [Read more: Food-Borne Illnesses Still a Threat, Despite New Food-Safety Law.]

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    • Hungry for Healthy School Lunch Ideas?

      Students are carrying more than just their backpacks as they head back to school. Almost 20 percent of kids from kindergarten on up are packing extra pounds, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. America's children are increasingly afflicted with adult diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension. The culprit? In part, the pizza, French fries, and other greasy fare that fills your kid's cafeteria. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit group that promotes preventive medicine, children who buy lunch at school are more likely than kids who bring their lunch from home to be overweight and obese and less likely to eat fruits and vegetables. While the Healthy School Meals Act passed last year attempts to improve adolescent eating patterns by setting new nutrition standards for all food served in schools—from lunchrooms to vending machines—the only way to guarantee that your child's lunch is nutritious and well balanced is to pack it yourself.