“If you ask anyone in food safety, ‘What is the one food you will not eat?’ Raw sprouts tops the list, always.”
That’s one of the first sentences out of the mouth of Doug Powell, a former professor of food safety and the publisher of Barfblog, a frequently updated site that publishes evidence-based opinions on food safety.
I’ve asked him whether food-safety fears about sprouts—those tiny, crunchy squiggles in your salad or sandwich—are well-founded. He tells me the public isn’t concerned enough about them.
“Risk is inherent in the nature of the product which is why Walmart and Costco got rid of them,” he says. (Kroger also stopped selling sprouts in 2012.) “This is not a new problem. It’s been going on for decades.”
According to a paper he and three colleagues published in the journal Food Control in 2012, sprouts have been responsible for at least 55 documented foodborne outbreaks affecting more than 15,000 people globally in the past two decades. The Food And Drug Administration tallies 46 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness in the United States linked to sprouts between 1996 and 2016, accounting for for 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths. In an effort to reduce these outbreaks, the FDA in 2017 collected 825 samples of sprouts from across the U.S.; 14 of those tested positive for E. coli, listeria, or salmonella.
The first reason sprouts—whether alfalfa or mung bean or radish or other varieties—can carry E.coli or salmonella bacteria has to do with how the sprouts are produced. The conditions that cause a seed to sprout are the same conditions that cause bacteria to breed: warm, moist air.
“The sprout is made from germinating seeds and the seeds themselves may be the source of the contamination. When you’re germinating a seed and growing a sprout, you’re providing conditions for the sprout growth that are ideal also for bacterial growth,” says Craig Hedberg, a professor in the School Of Public Health at University Of Minnesota. “This is a product that went through incubator-like circumstances.”
The second reason is related to how most of us consume sprouts: raw. Because we value sprouts’ crunch, we rarely cook them before adding them to a dish. Powell notes that people in many Southeast Asian countries do blanch their sprouts before cooking with them, but that the West tends to consume them raw.
The third reason sprouts can pose a risk is because even rinsing them won’t generally remove enough of the bacteria to keep an infected sprout from making a person sick. Hedberg says that even romaine lettuce, which has recently been associated with foodborne illness outbreaks, has a surface area that’s easier to wash than sprouts.
“The seeds can get contaminated as they’re growing, so the contamination can be internal,” Powell tells me. “So you’re never going to wash it off.”
Sprouts do have their defenders, though, who note higher levels of soluble fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and mineral bioavailability compared to non-sprouted grains and vegetables. The Academy Of Nutrition And Dietetics states that “in general, the health benefits associated with savoring raw or lightly cooked sprouts outweigh risks for healthy individuals. However, be aware that there is risk of food poisoning if you plan to eat them.”
The FDA recommends cooking sprouts thoroughly to kill bacteria, and further advises that the elderly, children, people who are pregnant, and people with compromised immune systems should not eat sprouts at all. To further reduce your risk of sprout-related foodborne illness, the FDA says consumers can “request that raw sprouts not be added to your food.” So, bottom line, if you’re concerned—yeah, just don’t eat them. May we suggest beet slivers or carrot ribbons for crunch?