Foodborne illnesses occur by consuming water or food contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms. Some bacteria, parasites, and viruses reach our kitchen through the food itself, by cross-contamination with contaminated surfaces, or by sick people handling such food.
Worldwide studies show varied results. For example, it is estimated that 12 to 64% of intestinal infections originate in the home, while restaurants and other establishments contribute 21 to 84% of cases.
Food, by its nature, is a frequent carrier of germs. Animal products can acquire these pathogens during the slaughter of fattening animals or by cross-contamination throughout their handling, while fruits and vegetables are commonly contaminated by contact with water or surfaces or by operators during harvesting, sorting, and packing (cross-contamination).
Whatever the case may be, these data express the need to take preventive measures during food handling and preparation at home or in food businesses. We know that cleaning activities in the kitchen demand the use of detergents and disinfectants to maintain the cleanliness of utensils and surfaces to maintain the health and safety of diners.
The formulations of kitchen detergents are surfactant substances (surfactants), which are responsible for the generation of foam but may also contain other substances that participate as stabilizers, preservatives, or microbicidal action, as well as fragrances and colorants. They can be found in the market in different presentations, such as liquids, gels, pastes, powders, and tablets, among others.
It is frequently observed that people add a small amount of disinfectant to their detergents (the most frequent is chlorine-based), but is it beneficial to intentionally add a disinfectant to kitchen detergents? Osvaldo López Cuevas, an academic at the Center for Research in Food and Development (CIAD), explains the pros and cons of this practice.
The specialist in microbiological risk assessment explained that it is important to consider that kitchen detergents, in any brand or presentation, are formulated and evaluated to fulfill the function of cleaning and disinfecting. They are also evaluated to ensure the safety of users, i.e., that they do not cause irritation or any other adverse symptom from their use.
Additionally, some kitchen detergents are added with active compounds of an organic origin; for example, with enzymes or essential oils and other plant extracts, which generally have degreasing and/or antimicrobial power.
Therefore, if you do not know the nature of your kitchen detergent and the effects it may suffer from the addition of a disinfectant such as chlorine, it is recommended not to do so, as it could destabilize the formulation, degrading some of the active compounds of the detergent and even making it more irritating to the skin.
In case you intend to reduce the microbial load of cookware, the also experts in physical, chemical, and biological methods of disinfection shared some simple but useful practices that can help.
For example, to efficiently decontaminate the kitchen sponge, you can put a container with the sponge in the microwave oven and operate it for 2 to 2.5 minutes. It is important to mention that the sponge should be washed (without food or detergent residues) and well moistened with clean water.
This will help the water to heat to boiling point and kill the germs contained in it. If you do not have a microwave oven, you can conventionally boil the water and introduce the sponge for 2 to 3 minutes in the hot water (let it cool before using it to avoid burns).
A similar action can be done with the chopping board, especially if you still have wooden boards in your kitchen. This will help to eliminate the germs that are deposited in the cracks of the wood and cannot be eliminated by conventional washing.
Author: Osvaldo López Cuevas, head researcher of the National Laboratory for Food Safety Research (Laniia) of CIAD Culiacán.