Ovens & Ranges

This raw vegetable is just as risky to eat as raw meat

Think your vegetarian diet means you won't get sick? Think again!

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Look, there are some foods that you should almost always avoid eating raw: Chicken, beef, and—it kills me to admit it—cookie dough.

As a not-dead person who has eaten all three raw (yes, including chicken. I was in Japan and it was gross.) I know you can get away with it, but you're taking a risk every time.

But there's one food that I will never eat raw: sprouts. Why? Because a sprout is, by its very nature, a dangerous proposition. Sprouts only, well, sprout in conditions that are warm and humid. You know what else flourishes in warm, humid conditions? Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli, according to FoodSafety.gov.

Of course, pretty much all vegetables have some risk of carrying foodborne illness if they aren't cleaned properly. But sprouts are particularly thorny because they tend to be served raw or lightly cooked and cleaning them alone doesn't guarantee that you're getting a bacteria-free meal.

Bacteria can actually get into sprout seeds before it even starts to grow.

FDA.gov, in its advisory on what foods are safe to eat for pregnant women, cautions that bacteria can actually get into sprout seeds before it even starts to grow. Once that happens, it's "nearly impossible" to clean that bacteria out—you have to cook it completely.

We spoke to Lisa M. Berger, a food safety consultant based in Massachusetts, and she reiterated that raw sprouts can be dangerous to eat if not handled properly—pointing out that it's actually illegal in some places to serve raw sprouts to high-risk populations like nursing homes.

"Raw sprouts have been implicated in numerous outbreaks of foodborne illness," she said, adding that the humid conditions required to grow sprouts are "the perfect medium for bacteria to grow."

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She also added that sprouts can be contaminated along several points in the chain, such as when they are transported on trucks, handled in kitchens, or prepared on cutting surfaces. They are also tricky to clean because they are so small they could slip through colanders.

That doesn't mean that only professional kitchens need to be concerned though—even home-grown sprouts can pose a danger. And vegetarians who may assumes that they are less likely to be sick since they aren't regularly consuming animal protein should still have their guard up when it comes to sprouts.

You can still enjoy sprouts safely, but here's the skinny from FoodSafe.gov on what you need to know:

  • Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts).

  • Cook sprouts thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness. Cooking kills the harmful bacteria.

  • Request that raw sprouts not be added to your food. If you purchase a sandwich or salad at a restaurant or delicatessen, check to make sure that raw sprouts have not been added.

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