by Kimberly Allen, RN
It’s one of my favorite times of the year – harvest time. Recently it seems more people are conscious of the potential hazards posed by the chemically grown foods in the local super market and many have taken to growing their own vegetables and preserving them for use year round. In fact, 1 out of 5 households in the US can their own food and a least 65% of them are canning vegetables.
Personally, I loved to make my own jam with local wild berries and there’s nothing like homemade pickles and the tomatoes I canned made great red sauce all winter long. However, if not done properly all your hard work can turn deadly. Food that is not canned properly can become contaminated with Clostridium botulinum, this is the bacteria that is responsible for causing botulism. This bacteria can be found in the soil and is able to not only survive but grow and produce a toxin in your sealed jars. The toxin that causes botulism affects your nerves and can paralyze you, it can even cause death. Botulism is considered a medical emergency. If you experience symptoms like blurred or double vision, dry mouth, or difficulty swallowing and slurred speech or muscle weakness you may have contracted botulism and should seek medical attention immediately.
Canning your own fruits and vegetables can be very rewarding. However, the equipment needed and instructions have changed over the years so it’s very important for the safety of your canned goods to follow the current recommendations. The first thing you want to do is be sure to use the proper equipment. Starting with the type of caner you use. There are only two methods that are safe and approved. A water bath caner can be used for fruits and high acid vegetables. This would include things like jam’s and jellies as well as pickles and relishes along with tomatoes and fruit. A pressure caner must be used for all low acid vegetables, soups and stews as well as meats, poultry and fish. Although there are other methods, they are not considered safe.
Once you have the proper caner, and have inspected it to be sure everything is intact and working, it’s time to get your jars. Always run your finger around the top of your jar, even brand new jars fresh out of the box. Any chip, bump or defect of any kind can interfere with you seal. Also, always use “canning” jars, other jars like small mayonnaise jars or empty jars from jam you bought at the store will not seal properly. I know, I didn’t closely check all the jars in a box of “canning Jars” that a friend gave me and discovered my mistake later when I saw that the seal had been broken. Always use new lids every year for every jar. You can reuse the rings and the jars but you absolutely must use new lids for a proper seal. I have had friends ask me about washing the jars before boiling them and the answer is yes, definitely. For one thing you aren’t just boiling them to sterilize them but also to be sure the jar is hot enough so that when you add your boiling brine and jam etc they don’t break. And trust me, that is a hot mess you do not want to have to clean up. It’s important to remove any dust or residue from your jars before putting them in the water, it’s also a good time to inspect them for any defects. I would always rinse my lids too in case the box had sat on the shelf for a long time and dust, which can get everywhere, had gotten in.
Once you’ve gotten your equipment you want to choose fresh ripe produce, either from your garden or your local farmer’s market. If you are canning fruit, avoid over or under ripened produce as they do not can well. Wash and prepare according to instructions. The most crucial part of the instructions is the heating process. If not done correctly the botulin toxin can develop. Heating times and temperatures can vary depending what you are canning and don’t forget to adjust for elevation.
Many people today are uncomfortable taking their organic fruits and vegetables and canning them using sugar and white distilled vinegar from the store shelf. You can substitute raw honey or organic cane sugar for the refined sugar in your recipes. You can also use organic apple cider vinegar, you can even use your own homemade vinegar as well. The key to that is checking the acid content of the vinegar you want to use. It must be at least 4.5% acetic acid. In order to check the acidity of your vinegar you will need an acid titration kit that you can get from a wine making supplier.
Sometimes even when you feel you’ve done everything right a seal can malfunction. So you are your last line of defense against botulism. “When in doubt, throw it out.” If the lid on your jar is bulging up instead of sucked down into the jar the seal is bad. Do not even attempt to use it. If the brine or liquid in the jar is foamy, the food is discolored or moldy or if it smells odd throw it out. Bottom line, never, ever taste a canned food to see if it’s still good or you could end up with botulism. Bon Apetit and have a healthy harvest!
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.