What to know about food and COVID-19

A photo of a cook as he prepares a carryout food order at The Sett in Union South at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on June 2, 2020.

(Photo by Jeff Miller / UW-Madison)

Is it safe to order take-out?
Should I disinfect my groceries?
What should I eat to boost my immunity?

We sat down (virtually) with Registered Dietitian Nutritionist Dr. Tara LaRowe to answer these questions – plus a few more. Dr. LaRowe earned her Ph.D. in Nutritional Sciences from the University of Wisconsin – Madison in 2005 and is currently the Didactic Program in Dietetics Coordinator in the Department of Nutritional Sciences at UW-Madison.

Rec Well: Is COVID-19 spread through food?
Dr. Tara LaRowe: Based on CDC research and knowledge of the COVID-19 virus, it does not seem to be the main route of transmission of the virus. The chances of it being spread through the food we eat would be very, very low. The virus needs a living host, so the transmission is not going to be through food or packaging.

RW: After grocery shopping, is it necessary to leave food in the garage for a few days before bringing it inside?
TL: The risk of contracting the virus is very low when bringing in food packages. It can live on surfaces for several hours to maybe one day, so if you feel that your packages have been contaminated you could certainly leave it, but bringing in your food packages is very low risk. After you put away your food, sanitize the surfaces of your kitchen. If packages are being put into cupboards and you are not using those within a certain amount of time, if the virus was on a package, it’s not going to live for very long. Again, risk is very, very low. So,  just practice safe handling of food packages; wash your hands, keep your hands away from your eyes, nose, and mouth, sanitize surfaces that packages or food has touched, and wash your fruits and vegetables.

RW: Should we be washing foods any differently?
TL: I don’t think we should be doing things any differently, although, maybe we can learn more about safe food handling practices if we weren’t doing those prior to COVID. Being better about washing our fruits and vegetables properly, you know it’s very simple. Just running it under some warm water and scrubbing it with a vegetable brush for hard peelings you aren’t going to cut off. Meats follow the principles of cleaning surfaces, using separate knives for your meats than with fruits/vegetables, and cooking meats to a certain temperature. Cooking is going to kill a virus that happens to be on a piece of meat. I think more of the risk comes from food borne illness than from COVID with safe food handling practices.

RW: What precautions should we take when ordering takeout?
TL: Restaurants are overseen by the Department of Health in terms of safe food handling practices, so hopefully during this time they’ve also looked at the CDC guidelines for takeout. The first thing you can do is consumer observation: are employees wearing masks and gloves, are they practicing social distancing? As far as the packing and utensils go, I would say the utensils are very safe to use if they are within a sealed bag. This is all very low risk if the establishment is practicing safe guidelines.

RW: Can we boost our immune system through food?
TL: So, this is kind of a two-part question. Yes, we can do things to boost our immune system, and we can eat a certain way that has increased vitamins, antioxidants, and phytochemicals which mainly come from fruits and vegetables. They’re rich in Vitamin C, high in antioxidants and phytochemicals; all of these are part of our immune system and defend against invaders in our body. The second part of the question is kind of getting at, can we do this right now to prevent COVID-19, and the answer is probably not. It drives me crazy that these supplement companies are on TV trying to sell their big immune system packages and banking on the vulnerabilities of people right now because chances are it is not going to prevent COVID or make that huge of a difference. I would say that food is the best. Right now is not a time you need to be spending a lot of money on supplements. They are not going to prevent COVID, we don’t have that evidence or that connection that super immunizing our system is going to help us in any way. But this is a message where all of us can look at the foods we are choosing to eat and eat the foods to best prepare our body for immunity. This goes for common colds, the flu, really anything. General good eating habits are always a positive thing to do.

RW: How do our nutrition habits play into the likelihood of contracting COVID-19?
TL: We have a very reactive healthcare system. I am hoping this turns the tables a little bit to put more work into prevention, because yes we know that individuals with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, COPD, or heart disease might be more susceptible to COVID. Are some of those diseases related to nutrition? Absolutely. There have also been some associations saying the number of cases of COVID in the U.S. are so staggeringly high because of our obesity crisis. This could certainly be true – the nutritional status of most Americans is poor. I am hoping we can look at this as an opportunity for more preventative strategies, to put more resources into prevention, healthy eating, and activity, that will make us healthier people. Viruses will always come up, infectious diseases will always come up, so then our reactiveness to them will not be as dire because we put a lot of effort into prevention.

RW: Are there any other topics or comments you would like to address?
TL: There have been a lot of news articles about vitamin D. Again, there are two separate issues here. One, vitamin D insufficiency and deficiency is prevalent in our country and so it’s quite possible that an individual should be supplementing with vitamin D. However, you should know what your vitamin D levels and talk with your physician prior to supplementing. Second, vitamin D may be a connecting factor with COVID – it could be a preventative measure. If we were all healthy, building our immune system through adequate vitamin D, would the trajectory of COVID-19 be very different in our populations? Maybe, but we can’t say that right now. Like I said, infectious diseases are going to be with us forever, so this is a preventative moment where we can assess our nutrition and health as a country. Increasing our fruit and vegetable intake to get antioxidants, knowing what our biochemical measures are and health status is in terms of blood lipids and vitamin D status as a few examples.