Every savvy world traveller understands the importance of staying healthy while travelling. All the guidebooks include food safety guidelines, particularly for travelling in Asia or third world countries, and all will include a version of this primary key rule:
If you can cook it, boil it, or peel it you can eat it…otherwise forget it.
Such a strict rule is not always practical, but even though it is slightly extreme, most travellers find it is better to be safe than sorry. There is nothing worse than a good dose of food poisoning (or Bali belly as it is called here). Having to peel or cook all my fruit and veggies, or not eat them at all, is something I have struggled to follow in Bali as time goes on.
I have certainly followed these general guidelines previously in my travels, and did start off being strict about it in Bali, but after living here for 10 months I have eased off a bit.
What is the risk? Well there could be dirt on the skin from contaminated soil or the use of animal fertilizer. There could be bacteria on the surface from people’s hands that handle them before you have bought them, or from being washed in dirty water. Some may say there could be pesticides on the skin, used to kill bugs and pathogens from the dirt, but this is not solely a third world problem, and this will not lead to immediate food poisoning that is detrimental to holidaying.
Let’s look at the process of peeling too? I remember in 2005 on a Costa Rican beach, licking my lips at the luscious pineapple snack on offer. It was peeled in front of me with the dirtiest of blades, on a questionable cutting board with someone else’s potentially dirty hands! I ate it and didn’t fall ill, but this would be a prime time for the bacteria to be all over my delicious juicy pineapple. That was a calculated risk, as it looked so good, but peeling it myself would have been the best option to avoid contamination.
Here in Bali there is plenty of peelable fruits available including bananas, oranges or citrus, pineapple, mangosteen, melons, rambutans, mangoes, dragon fruit and avocados. This is a pretty substantial list! Vegetables like cucumbers, carrots and mushrooms can also be peeled, and potatoes and other root vegetables which are not only peelable, also need cooking, which places them in the edible category anyway.
There are lots of options which fit within the peel, boil or cook rule, but avoiding apples, pears, berries, tomatoes, capsicum, lettuce, sprouts, herbs, leafy greens, celery, most salad items and more, is challenging for someone who loves all these things! If it’s just a two week holiday it would be bearable, but definitely not satisfying for the long term.
On the nutrition side of things, to peel the skin is removing some of the most nutritious parts of the vegetable and fruit. For cucumber, carrot, apples etc., the skin often contains much of the fibre, antioxidants and vitamins, which are then lost when ditching the skin.
A possible solution is to wash all non-peeled vegetables and fruit with purified water, but is this enough to get rid of all the culprit bacteria? Who knows. I have slowly become less diligent over time – I started off peeling everything I could, then I started washing things I didn’t want to peel (cucumber, carrots, apples, pears etc.), now sometimes we don’t even wash things, like an apple straight from the fruit bowl. Fortunately we have been safe from any major health issues, and when we have been sick it has usually been traced back to restaurants or eating away from home. I do believe we are building tolerance to local bacteria too, which helps.
I have decided that the risk of missing out on the nutrients from the fruit and vegetables outweighs the risk of infection from the ones I buy. I still play it safe when choosing where I buy groceries, what they look like, and try to find the right balance of food safety rules. I peel what looks dubious (such as dirty carrots), I try to wash all non-peeled things with clean water (cucumbers, apples), or I cleanly peel things that need peeling (melons). This way we are all relaxed and happy, staying nutritionally topped up, and avoiding the dreaded Bali belly!