True or False? 6 Common Food Questions Answered

Lots of mysteries lurking at the average grocery store
Lots of mysteries lurking at the average grocery store

There are a lot of misconceptions and myths floating around in our world today about the things we like to eat and drink. I hear a lot of strange "rules" at the grocery store where I work, and of course from people I know outside of my job. Here are a few that I think are pretty interesting.

I guess this is one way to avoid contaminating your kitchen
I guess this is one way to avoid contaminating your kitchen

6. You must wash chicken before cooking it.

I've heard this since I was a kid. Uncooked chicken is dirty and needs to be thoroughly washed before it is cooked. Is this true? The answer is "No!" And, in fact, it's a really bad idea.

Cooking chicken to proper temperature will destroy bacteria, but washing a dead uncooked bird in your kitchen is asking for trouble, since any dangerous bacteria present can easily be sloshed all over other surfaces in the kitchen, landing on prep areas, other food, or your own skin. So, no, rinsing a chicken off before cooking it is a very bad idea that actually worsens the problem it's supposed to help.

Delicious meal or clever strategy to sell meat before it's inedible?
Delicious meal or clever strategy to sell meat before it's inedible?

5. Markets pre-marinate meat to disguise the fact that it's going bad.

Customers ask me about this this all the time when they see that we have marinated beef and chicken for sale. So do meat markets marinate items in order to disguise the fact that the item is getting old? The answer is:


A huge part of running a successful meat business is managing product freshness. Not to sound gross, but from the time an animal is slaughtered, its meat begins to decay. There are procedures every step of the way from slaughter to the store that help to slow the rate of decomposition, but no meat market manager wants to just throw away hundreds of dollars of meat because it didn't sell fast enough, and is starting to rot. So what do they do? Well, there are lots of things that they might try. Freezing overstock is one technique, another is putting a product on sale if the amount they have on hand exceeds normal demand.

Then there are other ways, making sausage being a huge one. Adding a sausage cure to meat that's nearing its expiration prolongs its edibility.

Or they might marinate certain cuts that aren't "rotting" to the point of being inedible, but that don't look as fresh as they might have a day earlier.

I've never worked anywhere that would knowingly sell customers rotting meat, and good market management should avoid having lots of overstocked product laying around getting old anyway. The only time that I've ever marinated meat at a place I've worked, it was all very fresh, but I can't speak for everyone. 

4. Hamburger meat that is brown in the center is rotting. Is hamburger that is pink on the outside, but brown on the inside rotting and bad? The answer is:

Nope. I grind completely fresh trimmings into hamburger everyday, and it will look perfectly pinkish red on the outside, and after a very short time will tend to brown in the center. The culprit here is a pigment called oxymyoglobin which is present in meat, and blooms into the red color most people associate with freshness When exposed to oxygen. The interior of hamburger is often airtight enough that oxygen can't permeate its surface, and the center will be colored brown. I've noticed that when I loosely pack hamburger in a tray, it will tend to be pink all the way through because the looser meat allows more oxygen inside.

Real rotting hamburger is grey green or other creepy colors, and tends to smell bad.

3. Mayonnaise has to be refrigerated or you can get food poisoning.

I grew up hearing that, if I ate anything with mayo in it that had been left out and unrefrigerated, I was risking a certain death, or at least a really unpleasant bout of food poisoning. I still hear people say that anything with mayonnaise in it HAS to be refrigerated or it can be dangerous. Is this true?

No, it's not.

Think about those little foil condiment packs of mayo that fast food joints dole out. I've never seen those refrigerated. So if room temperature was enough to turn mayonnaise into a dangerous substance, I'd have been dead years ago. The fact is that any mayonnaise that comes in a jar or other packaging is going to be pasteurized and probably have preservatives in it. People who make their own fresh mayonnaise (which I recommend, because it's delicious) needs to make sure it's refrigerated because bacteria can rapidly grow if it's not, but the store bought stuff doesn't need that special care. Neither do a lot of things most of us instinctively refrigerate, such as butter.

With mayonnaise and food poisoning the problems can arise when it's used to make something like potato salad which has other ingredients (such as the potatoes) which can quickly become unsafe in warmer temperatures. But the mayo itself is fine. 

True or False? 6 Common Food Questions Answered
Photo by Chris Lane

2. Is the "Five Second Rule" safe?

Everyone has heard some variation of this food handling rule. If you drop something in the floor it's still safe to eat as long as you retrieve it within five seconds (or three, that's another variation). So is it unsafe to eat something that briefly sat on the floor? The answer is:

Possibly, or probably, depending on who you believe.

A recent informal study at a university in England seems to indicate that most food doesn't instantly contract enough bacteria to render it into a dangerous pathogenic breeding ground of death. Counter-intuitively, food that landed on carpet seemed to transfer less bacteria than that which landed on a tile surface, because the carpet fiber suspended the food from more contact.

Other studies have indicated that bacterial transfer can happen within seconds of floor contact, including scary stuff like salmonella, so bear that in mind before tossing back that slice of pizza that did a slow motion fall face first into the part of your floor where the dog likes to sit. According to certain polls, a huge majority of people still eat food that briefly sat on the floor, and most of them aren't keeling over, so make of that what you will.

None so black as this.
None so black as this.

1. Does darker roasted coffee contain more caffeine?

I talk to a lot of coffee aficionados at the grocery store where I work, and it seems that it's common knowledge that darker coffees pack more of a caffeine wallop than lighter ones. I've heard theories that the roasting process somehow releases more caffeine the longer that coffee beans are cooked, and I don't know, I guess that could make sense somehow, right? So is this true?

No, it is not. Not only is it false, the opposite is true.

While the flavor of darker roasts may become bolder than lighter ones, caffeine is actually lost during a longer roasting period. I guess that the more intense flavor of dark coffee somehow fools people into thinking that the caffeine is somehow intensified or extracted in a greater amount, but this is not the case. Just drink a gallon if you need more zing in your morning.

These are but a handful of ideas many people have about their food, some true, some not. I'm sure somewhere out there is someone who is squeamish about their hamburger being brown in the middle, who'll still eat something after they drop it on the floor. With food, like so many other things in life, we pick our battles.

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