March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Sprouts are skinny little veggies that are big on nutrition. More technically, they begin as seeds that — when exposed to the right temperature and moisture — germinate into very young plants. Common varieties you'll encounter in cuisine include grain, bean or leafy sprouts. Two of the most popular picks are alfalfa and mung bean sprouts. They're usually enjoyed raw and occasionally lightly cooked.
Sprouts and Food Poisoning
Eating sprouts can help promote good health. Unfortunately, they can also trigger food poisoning when consumed raw or even lightly cooked. This is because bacteria can thrive in a warm, humid environment and sprouts are grown in these conditions. In fact, many outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with various types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts have occurred in recent years, mainly by E. coli and Salmonella. Diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps are common symptoms that occur 12 to 72 hours after infection.
While there are approved plant treatments to reduce contamination, there is no way to guarantee all harmful bacteria are destroyed in raw sprouts. Unfortunately, you can't smell or see if a food is harboring bacteria. Luckily, proper cooking kills harmful bacteria that can be found in sprouts.
For people at "high risk" for food poisoning, severe and life-threatening illness may result from consuming raw or lightly cooked sprouts. People with weakened immune systems, children, the elderly and pregnant women should not eat any variety of raw or lightly-cooked sprouts. If you're a high-risk individual, thoroughly cook sprouts if you choose to eat them. If you're unsure of your risk level, consult your physician or registered dietitian nutritionist.
Keeping it Safe: From Market to Mealtime
Follow these key tips when buying, storing and eating fresh sprouts:
- Buy only fresh sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated.
- Do not buy sprouts that have a musty smell or slimy appearance.
- At home, refrigerate sprouts at 40° F or below — in a clean refrigerator.
- Wash your hands properly before handling raw sprouts.
- Rinse sprouts thoroughly under running water before use.
- If you decide to cook sprouts, it can help reduce the risk of food poisoning. Toss them into soups, stews or stir fries near the end of the cooking process — or oven roast until crisp and browned.
Dining Out Advice
Be inquisitive when eating away from home. It's important to know what's in the food you plan to eat, especially if there's a possibility that "risky" ingredients are included, such as raw sprouts in a sandwich, wrap, salad or select Asian foods, like a fresh spring roll. So if it appears that raw sprouts are on the menu, you can ask your server to please leave the sprouts off. And before taking a bite, make sure that they indeed got your order right.
The Bottom Line
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. If you're a high-risk individual, simply do not eat raw or lightly cooked sprouts. And though not the ideal way to enjoy sprouts in cuisine, the safest bet for all is to thoroughly cook sprouts to reduce the risk of food poisoning.