More than just what vegetables and fruits we consume, it’s important to know how and when we eat them. Carelessness can lead to food poisoning

The cross-posted mail, in somewhat shaky English, introduces Dr. Mak as one who treats terminal(ly)-ill cancer patients in an un-orthodox way. His “natural healing” methods include solar energy and fruits. The trick according to Dr. Mak is to eat fruit on an empty stomach — “ will play a major role to detoxify your system...”. “Graying hair, balding, nervous outburst, dark circles under the eyes — all these will not happen if you take fruits on an empty stomach.” Fruit “rots” and “ferments” when taken on a full stomach, causes gas and bloating.

Consumption matters

Can the timing of fruit consumption make such a difference? We don’t know. However, more than the ‘when’, the ‘how’ of fruit / vegetable consumption should matter to us, says an AP report, quoting the experience of Donna Heller, Texas, the U.S. After multiple visits to the doctor failed to stop her nausea and diarrhoea, Heller (54), thought she had stomach cancer. She then happened to watch a television show about an outbreak of cyclospora, a stomach ailment. The report said it was possibly linked to bagged salad mix. The symptoms of the illness matched hers. She told her doctor about it, and tests showed she was right. She was successfully treated with antibiotics. Where do you catch this parasitic illness? Food officials in the U.S. traced about half of the cases to a farm-made salad mix served in restaurants. The rest are still a mystery.

To find the source, doctors have to test the patient specifically for cyclospora. Many don’t because it is relatively rare. They don’t suspect it. Scientists identified it only in the early 1990s. As the parasite is very tiny, it is often difficult to confirm its presence, said officials at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Tests must be repeated with fresh samples. Also, on an average, the disease takes a week to show up, and diagnosis is often delayed, making it hard for the infected to remember what they ate. Heller said she had been eating out a lot when she got her stomach condition.

Painstaking work

We now eat fruits and vegetables grown continents away — an imported apple’s wax coating kept me down for a week. Also, these vegetables and fruits have several stops before reaching your grocery cart. Detecting at what point it embraced cyclospora is “labour-intensive and painstaking work”. “Cyclospora is a protozoan, found in unhygienic food stuff, and it spreads through oro-faecal route,” says Vani Vijay, surgeon and gastroenterologist. If picked up early, it is safe to treat. Watery diarrhoea, frequent bowel movement, weight and appetite loss, bloating, flatulence, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, low-grade fever are all symptoms, she says. “Early diagnosis and a week’s cover of specific antibiotic will be ideal for full recovery.”

When we cut vegetables and keep them for long, the infection is born, says Manish Kak, gastroenterologist, Columbia Asia Hospital. “Check the date of packing of these (chopped) vegetables.” No one can keep cut vegetables / fruits safe from infection for long; they will lose their nutrients, and washing them will further reduce their nutrients, he adds. Salads at restaurants are not safe unless cut freshly and served immediately. It’s possible that salads (even paneer) cut in the morning and served at dinner will infect you. They can result in “gastro-enteritis, fever, hepatitis A & E, food poisoning”, Dr. Manish says. He believes cyclospora is air-borne. Low immunity invites this dangerous condition, and cure depends on the stage of infection.

Don’t go by the appearance of food, they say. Avoid using cut-vegetables / fruits from the market. “Cut- (and packed) vegetables attract more bugs,” says Dr. Vani. “They are safe only when washed and cleaned.” Salads at restaurants are believed to be safe, but health education for chefs might be the only way to keep up this faith, she says. If you find the restaurant unhygienic, don’t order salads of any kind.

Awareness, vital

At home, wash vegetables thoroughly, eat them partly or fully steamed / cooked. “This will prevent most of the gastrointestinal infection and discomfort. Health education for end-users and the people who prepare food is essential for the community to be healthy and prevent endemic infections,” asserts Dr. Vani.