The refrigerator is a household appliance that, for years now, has become part of our families. It “lives” in all our homes, accompanies us for many years except for unforeseen events: from the moment of its purchase until the last tick of the compressor. We choose it for aesthetic reasons, to match the kitchen or for practicality, based on its capacity. Sometimes, for reasons of space and built-in furniture, the selection is forced. Then, from the moment the power supply is switched on, we can count on it: a storehouse of freshness, guaranteed even in summer, which requires at most a few adjustments in the setting, always ready to receive all the food (and more) that we store on its shelves.
It drastically simplifies food preservation, making products that would otherwise be quickly perishable easily available and helping us to better plan our spending. Although obviously simpler to manage than the ancient practices of preserving food in salt or oil, this appliance requires some small precautions to exploit its full potential and offer us health and nutritional well-being by avoiding unnecessary waste.
The most critical period for this household appliance is definitely summer: we have the compartments full of drinks, fruits, vegetables, meat and fish and the refrigerator is working at full capacity. The problem is not only to keep a drink cool, but to optimize the internal space in the fridge to safeguard the integrity of the food until it is consumed.
As also reported by the Ministry of Health website, preserving well is
important, not only for our health, but also to ensure the organoleptic properties of the food itself, i.e. the set of its physical and chemical characteristics (taste, smell, appearance, texture) and the nutritional characteristics; proteins, sugars, fats, but also vitamins, mineral salts, water contained in food can undergo qualitative/quantitative alterations.
Particular attention must be paid to the issue of temperature: “once taken from the supermarket’s refrigerated counter, it is necessary to keep foods at the right temperature, in order to limit the proliferation of microorganisms inside and on their surface”.
The Ministry identified a total of ten golden rules to keep in mind to use your refrigerator in a healthy way and are reported here:
- Check the temperature inside your refrigerator. Keep the temperature inside the refrigerator around 4-5 °C (on the central shelf) to best preserve your food. Place the refrigerator away from heat sources. The most recent models have a display showing the internal temperature of the refrigerator: if yours is not so equipped, place a normal thermometer on the various shelves and compartments: in this way you can check its efficiency and adjust its power, lowering the internal temperature.
- Each area of the refrigerator maintains different temperatures. The coldest part of the refrigerator is the lowest shelf, just above the vegetable drawer (about + 2 °C), while the least cold part is the door. However, since the new generation refrigerators have different refrigeration systems, only the instruction booklet can give you precise and correct indications on the management of the internal spaces.
- Do not store foods beyond their expiration date. For products to be kept in the refrigerator we talk about “expiry date”: it is the date by which a food can be sold and must be consumed. The date must report, in order, the day, the month and eventually the year. Within this date the producer guarantees the wholesomeness and the organoleptic characteristics of the product. The preservation conditions and, if applicable, the temperature according to which the period of validity has been determined, must also be written on the package. It is indicated with the words “best before”: it is important to verify this date at the moment of purchase and during domestic storage and to eliminate expired products from the refrigerator.
- Each food has its own “storage temperature”. Meat and fish must be kept in the coldest part (usually the lowest compartment). Gutted and washed fish must be consumed within 24 hours. Meat has different preservation times according to the type of cut and composition: it must be consumed within 24 hours if minced, within 48 hours if chicken or turkey, within 3 days in case of non-packaged cold cuts and fresh meat in general. The central part (usually 4-5 °C) is suitable for eggs, dairy products, cream based desserts and those foods to be kept in the refrigerator “after opening”. In the higher temperature zone (usually the drawer in the lower part) are stored vegetables and fruits which can be damaged by too low temperatures; these should be consumed quickly to avoid deterioration. The shelves inside the door are the hottest spots in the refrigerator and are for products that only need light refrigeration (e.g. soft drinks, butter).
- The refrigerator is not suitable for every food. Some foods do not need to be refrigerated, on the contrary, they could be damaged by it, such as exotic fruits, citrus fruits (cold can make them bitter), tomatoes, green beans, cucumbers and zucchini; bread becomes stale faster at low temperatures. Fruits and vegetables that have yet to ripen should be stored at room temperature.
- Never store hot food in the refrigerator. If you cook, let the food cool down completely before placing it in the refrigerator: you will avoid condensation and sudden rises in temperature on the shelf.
- Beware of cross-contamination. Separate raw foods from cooked foods or ready-to-eat foods: this will enable you prevent any microorganisms present in raw foods from being transferred to foods that will not undergo any heat treatment before consumption.
- Use clean, closed containers. It is always a good idea to store foods in clean containers or in their original packaging, as these carry expiration dates and useful storage information. Homemade foods should also be carefully stored in clean containers with a lid. Before closing containers, it is good practice to wait for the contents to cool down in order to prevent steam from condensing on the lid and falling on the food. Avoid simply storing food on a plate: you may see drops of liquid falling from a shelf to the one below.
- Clean the inside of your refrigerator regularly. You can use specific products or simply water and baking soda or vinegar. Keeping the refrigerator clean and without ice accumulation on the walls ensures perfect functioning and the maintenance of the refrigeration temperature. The instruction manual of your appliance will tell you how to carry out proper maintenance.
- Don’t give in to the temptation to overstock. Avoid overloading the refrigerator with too many foods: when shopping always remember how much it can hold. The cold air inside must be able to circulate freely around the food. If there is not enough space between products, air will not be able to circulate and the correct distribution of temperature will be hindered.
This last point is closely related to a huge problem that we often struggle to understand. In a world where more and more people are going hungry, unfortunately a large part of the population wastes large quantities of food. The issue is not limited to our refrigerators, but involves the food retail and catering sectors in general.
In Italy, on average, we waste 65 kg of food per capita every year, a quantity that, according to the Food Sustainability Index, puts us in 13th place in Europe for the quantity of food wasted during processing, distribution and consumption. Food waste also translates into waste of natural resources, just think that the fruits and vegetables we throw away every year require over 73 million cubic meters of water for their cultivation. Globally, discarded food costs $2.6 trillion a year. This also contributes to climate change – generating 8 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions – and to land overexploitation, as 28 percent of the world’s available land is used to produce food that is then not consumed.
To combat this phenomenon, action must be taken on two fronts. From a political point of view, it is necessary to finance research projects dedicated to extending the expiry date of food products, improving the use of new packaging technologies, developing apps and digital platforms to recover food surpluses throughout the supply chain and facilitating the distribution of food to the most vulnerable groups of the population.
At the same time, however, private initiatives are also needed to make people aware of the importance of adopting sustainable diets and combating food waste. Above all, everyone must act responsibly, thinking that what we can do in our own small way, if shared and adopted by all, can lead to great changes.