Most Cookbooks Lack Sufficient Food-Safety Information, Study Says

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The next time you get creative when following a cookbook recipe, you may want to veer from the stated cooking temperature, too — it could be leading you astray.

Few cookbooks deliver food-safety information alongside cooking instructions, and when they do it’s often inaccurate, finds a new study appearing in British Food Journal.

“Cookbooks aren’t widely viewed as a primary source of food-safety information, but cookbook sales are strong and they’re intended to be instructional,” said senior author Ben Chapman, associate professor of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University.

Credit: Katrin Gilger/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

“Cookbooks tell people how to cook, so we wanted to see if cookbooks were providing any food-safety information related to cooking meat, poultry, seafood or eggs, and whether they were telling people to cook in a way that could affect the risk of contracting foodborne illness,” added Chapman.

The researchers mined nearly 1,500 recipes from 29 popular cookbooks that had appeared on the New York Times list of bestsellers. All of the recipes they pored over contained raw animal ingredients in one form or another.

Related: TV Cooking Shows Might Be Failing Safety Standards

Ultimately, they found that just 123 recipes, or 8%, mentioned cooking to a specific temperature, and of those 123 recipes nearly one-third listed a temperature that wasn’t high enough to meet food-safety standards.

“In other words, very few recipes provided relevant food-safety information, and 34 of those 123 recipes gave readers information that wasn’t safe,” said Chapman. “Put another way, only 89 out of 1,497 recipes gave readers reliable information that they could use to reduce their risk of foodborne illness.”

Measuring Heat and Cooking Time

The study authors found a particular grievance with a common characteristic of cookbooks: using the duration of cooking in place of an internal temperature reading.

“The most common indicator [we saw] was cooking time, which appeared in 44 percent of the recipes,” said lead author Katrina Levine. “And cooking time is particularly unreliable, because so many factors can affect how long it takes to cook something: the size of the dish being cooked, how cold it was before going into the oven, differences in cooking equipment and so on.”

Credit: Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0

The safest measurement to use is the internal temperature of the dish — say, a loin roast or chicken cordon bleu. You can use a meat thermometer to safely assess the internal temperature of just about any dish.

Safe internal food temperatures vary by dish. For example, chicken requires an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.

“This is important because cooking meat, poultry, seafood and eggs to a safe internal temperature kills off pathogens that cause foodborne illness,” Levine said. “These temperatures were established based on extensive research, targeting the most likely pathogens found in each food.”

Related: Cooking on High Heat Could Increase Your Heart Disease Risk

Based on their research, the study authors believe there’s more room next to the teaspoons and measuring cups for some additional food-safety information. It might keep us from getting sick.

“Ideally, cookbooks can help us make food tasty and reduce our risk of getting sick, so we’d like to see recipes include good endpoint cooking temperatures,” said Chapman. “A similar study was done 25 years ago and found similar results — so nothing has changed in the past quarter century. But by talking about these new results, we’re hoping to encourage that change.”

Richard Scott
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.