If we learned anything from Chipotle’s recent E. coli outbreak, it’s that fresh, locally sourced foods aren’t always a guaranteed slam dunk in the health department. In fact, all of the outbreaks on the CDC’s homepage are in the “health” food category.
Sprouts -- those spindly little veggies often perceived as a healthy addition to a sandwich or salad -- are at the top of the outbreak list.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced recently that it is investigating a multistate outbreak of Salmonella muenchen linked to alfalfa sprouts produced by Sweetwater Farms. States affected include Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Pennsylvania.
Consumers who have bought sprouts produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts or Sweetwater Farms should not consume them. If you think you have consumed a contaminated sprout, the FDA advises that you contact your healthcare provider.
This isn’t the first time sprouts have been at the center of an outbreak scare, either. There have been at least 30 reported outbreaks since 1996, according to FoodSafety.gov. Due to the nature of how they are produced, sprouts carry the risk of foodborne illness and tend to make regular appearances on outbreak lists.
The warm, humid environment in which they’re grown sets the stage for harmful bacteria. If consumed raw -- or even lightly cooked -- sprouts come with an increased risk of food poisoning or contamination by E. coli or Salmonella, especially if you’re considered a “high-risk” individual. The high risk category includes children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems.
Though they’re considered a health food, they require careful handling and refrigeration in order for consumers to avoid falling ill.
Eating and storing
Experts recommend these tips for eating and storing fresh sprouts:
- Only buy sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated
- Do not buy sprouts with a musty smell or slimy appearance
- At home, refrigerate sprouts at 40 degrees or lower and rinse well before use
- After two days, compost them rather than consuming them
- Cook sprouts thoroughly
- Request that raw sprouts not be added to your food at restaurants
- If you’re a high-risk individual, do not eat raw or lightly cooked sprouts at all
Risk vs Benefits
Despite the risk of contamination, however, experts say the benefits of sprouts outweigh the risks. Sprouts are loaded with vitamins C, A, and K, and research shows they can help aid digestion.
The stage in their life cycle has a lot to do with their nutrient-dense nature. The sprouting process increases protyolitic enzymes that make carbs and proteins digestible, thus saving your body from having to produce those digestive enzymes on its own.
Sprouts also contain a much higher dose of vitamins than their more mature counterparts. In a cup of broccoli sprouts for example, the vitamin E content can be as high as 7.5 mg compared to 1.5 mg in the same amount of raw or cooked broccoli.
"It's essentially about getting the most benefit out of a plant in the most biologically concentrated form," says FoodFacts, in their article Shout Out for Sprouts. "So eat sprouts or sprout some -- they're a mega-healthy food we can all live with."