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Is It Unhealthy to Eat Cold Food?

Stop and think twice about eating cold food. Or maybe not?

Whether by choice or by circumstance—or perhaps both—most of us live a hurried lifestyle. This lifestyle requires us to make certain compromises when it comes to our day, and to stick to a certain routine that allows us to make the most of the time that we have.

Wake up. Turn the alarm clock off. Go through your morning routine. Brew yourself some coffee. Eat a bowl of refrigerated oatmeal for breakfast. Get dressed, kiss the spouse and kids goodbye, commute, work.

Attend meetings, answer emails. Bite into a chilled meal come lunchtime, have a cup of coffee late afternoon, attend a few more meetings and answer a dozen or so more emails until it’s time to leave work.

Get home, see your family, cook up a meal for dinner for yourself and everyone else. Load the dishes in the dishwasher, take a shower, and go to bed.

One of the many compromises this lifestyle requires us to make involves the food that we eat on a daily basis. Refrigerated food is, for many of us, all we get until it’s time for dinner.

This begs the question, especially for the health-conscious reader: “Is it unhealthy to eat cold foods?”

To find out the answer, I spoke with Michelle Rauch, Registered Dietitian at The Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, population 28,353.

Eating cold food is not considered unhealthy as long as that food has been prepared, handled, and stored properly. Undercooked or spoiled foods are unsafe to eat, even if they have been refrigerated.

Rauch, who can be found on LinkedIn, also runs Dietitians with a Mission (follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram). Dietitians with a Mission is a goodwill project she helped organize with a fellow RD to support frontline healthcare workers during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

But what about eating hot food while drinking a cold beverage (and vice versa)? Something many of us do often, especially when enjoying a cold can of beer on a sweltering summer day or eating dessert with tea in the good company of a close friend at a café?

Asked about this issue, Rauch replied: “There are no studies or scientific information that find that there are any safety issues with eating hot and cold foods together.”

As it turns out, as long as you do not eat rock-hard foods straight from the freezer, which you should not be doing in the first place, your body—and your stomach—should be generally fine.

So eat that chicken Caesar salad, that smoked salmon bagel, or that non-microwaved lunch without feeling like you’re doing harm to yourself. Have a tall latte with it, if you’d like.

It shouldn’t go unmentioned that, nine times out of ten, food tastes better warm than cold. So if you aren’t eating gazpacho or cold cucumber soup, warm that dish up to bring out the aromas and flavors in it.

In our exchange of ideas on the topic of eating cold food, Rauch pointed out to me that traditional Eastern medicine sees things a little differently when it comes to the relationship between our bodies and the temperature of the food we eat.

Chinese medicine, in particular, emphasizes that our bodies need balance in order to feel good. That balance comes from balancing the Yin (dark, cold, negative) and Yan (light, hot, positive) so that the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Warm and hot foods bring heat to our bodies (hot and spicy foods, chilis, soups, and stews). In contrast, cold and cool foods cool our bodies (leafy vegetables, sliced cheese, and cold tea). Certain foods, like rice, are considered neutral.

Gauging the Safety of Refrigerated Foods

Just because a food item is refrigerated does not make it safe for you to eat. If it was not prepared, handled, or stored properly, it can just as well make you sick.

To determine whether or not a cold food is edible, Rauch gives Home Cook World readers the following four-step checklist:

  1. Was the food cooked to the proper internal temperature?
  2. If not, is the food safe to eat “raw” or in its original state?
  3. Was the food handled properly, following food safety basics?
  4. Is the food within its recommended storage life and not past its expiration date?

Cooked to the proper internal temperature:

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Safety Inspection Service advises us to cook red meat, poultry, game, seafood, and eggs to a specific internal temperature, as measured by a meat thermometer, so they are safe to eat.

Beef, pork, veal, and lamb should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 145°F (62.8°C) and rested for at least 3 minutes. Without the resting time, the same temperature applies to ham and to fish and shellfish.

Ground and minced red meat should be cooked to an internal temperature of at least 160°F (71.1°C). With the exception of poultry, which requires an even higher internal temperature of 165°F (73.8°C).

All poultry, whether chicken, turkey, or wild game, no matter if whole birds or birds cut up into pieces, must be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 165°F (73.8°C) for safe consumption.

Safe to eat raw:

Most vegetables, fruits, and nuts (except legumes, eggplant, potatoes, and cruciferous vegetables) can be eaten raw.

In some cases, cooking brings out the flavor. For example, when carrots are roasted, they turn brown and caramelize on the surface. This not only softens them but also makes them taste and smell much more appetizing than raw.

In others, cooking can weaken the otherwise strong aromas and flavors of the foods we eat. Think of how sautéing an onion softens the pungent flavor, and sautéing garlic takes away the sharpness.

Handled properly, following food safety basics:

Unpasteurized milk, uncooked meat, and raw eggs can contain disease-causing bacteria. It should come as no surprise, then, that the transfer of bacteria from one food to another, also known as “cross-contamination,” is a major cause of foodborne illness.

The statistics are revealing: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about 48 million Americans suffer from food poisoning every year. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die.

If a food item has not been handled properly—that is, if food safety basics, such as using separate cutlery and boards for meat and produce and washing hands with soapy water after handling raw meat—have not been followed, it is not safe for you to eat.

Within its recommended storage life:

Shelf-stable foods can be stored at room temperature as long as they are canned or jarred and the seal on the package is not broken. Severely dented cans or jars with bulging lids should be discarded.

Perishable foods, on the other hand, spoil quickly. They must be refrigerated or frozen if they are to be kept longer, and should never be left at room temperature for more than 2 hours, or they may spoil.

If a food item has passed its expiration date, you should throw it away, even if you have kept it in the fridge. It is also advisable to play it safe and throw away all food frozen after the expiration date.

In Conclusion

Contrary to what some of us think, cold food isn’t unsafe to eat, and it’s okay to mix cold food with hot drinks. What’s important is that the food was prepared, handled, and stored properly.

We also consulted with Michelle Rauch on “Can You Get Drunk From Food Cooked With Alcohol?” and “We Asked Dietitians: Is Pan-Frying Healthy?”

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Written by

Jim is the former editor of Home Cook World. He is a career food writer who's been cooking and baking at home ever since he could see over the counter and put a chair by the stove.