Is Sprouting Safe?

On Sprouting and Safety

Scientists and health enthusiasts have raved about the nutritional benefits of sprouts for years. It has been said that sprouts will fight diseases because of the phytochemicals they contain. Organic compounds called saponins found in Alfalfa sprouts work to lower cholesterol and stimulate the immune system. Sprouts, across the board, are overflowing with vital vitamins and enzymes that aid the body in various ways; the benefits go on and on, yet there still remains a minor stigma about eating raw fresh sprouts even through the benefits by far outweigh the risks. Many fear the presence of food borne illnesses in sprouts, but if the proper steps are taken while growing or preparing sprouts for consumption, the risk is reduced to near nonexistence.

The most important precaution is having knowledge where your seeds or already-grown sprouts have originated from and if the seeds have been tested. Proper microbial testing must be done to ensure the seed’s and therefore the plant’s purity of pathogens. The organic sprouting seed we carry at True Leaf Market is all microbial tested for germination rate and pathogens as indicated on the packaging. If you are buying already-grown sprouts, be sure to check the packaging for verification of pathogen testing such as the International Sprout Growers Association mark.

Gathering treatment information from The University of California, the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources and the International Sprout Growers Association, we have provided safety precautions when growing sprouts to minimize the risk of contracting food-borne illnesses:

  1. Purchase Pathogen-tested seed.
  2. Treat seed for five minutes in a solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide (available at most drug stores) or vinegar in water. Small seed volumes used for home sprouting can easily be contained in a small mesh strainer and immersed directly into the peroxide solution. Swirl the strainer at one minute intervals to achieve uniform treatment. Always discard the peroxide or vinegar solution after each seed batch as its effectiveness will rapidly decline.
  3. Rinse the seed in running tap water for 1 minute. In addition, we recommend that you place the rinsed seed in a container with enough tap water to cover the seed plus one inch. Then carefully skim off all floating seed, seed coat fragments, and other debris and dispose of them. Although skimming can be a tedious process, research has tied most contamination to these materials.
  4. Sprout the seed in clean, sanitized containers, well away from areas of food preparation, pets, and high household traffic. To sanitize sprouting containers: Follow the directions on the bleach container (use plain, not scented laundry bleach) for sanitizing kitchen surfaces. Use 3/4 cup of bleach per gallon of water (3 tablespoons per quart) and soak the container for at least 5 minutes. Then rinse with clean water.

If you are buying already-grown sprouts, be sure to check for cleanliness and a fresh smell. If the smell is musty, DO NOT consume. Rinse thoroughly under running tap water. Some treat sprouts with vinegar between rinses, which helps clean the sprouts. Store sprouts in a sanitized container in the refrigerator to ensure longevity.

From my own experience, I’ve come to find growing and eating raw sprouts to be not only nutritionally beneficial but a fun hobby. I’ve sprouted AlfalfaBroccoliCloverRadishLentils, and Peas. I’ve been incorporating sprouts into my own cooking, incorporating sprouts into soups and using sprouts as a garnish for a salad or casserole. I follow the suggested steps for safe consumption and have never had a problem, nor do I worry about having a problem. Just as one must wear a helmet to safely reap the health benefits of riding a bicycle, one must take minor safety precautions to reap the plethora of benefits of consuming raw sprouts.

Why Alfalfa Sprouts are Still Safe and Healthy

By Steve Meyerowitz, author of Sprouts the Miracle Food

In its January 1999 issue, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) describes two incidences of Salmonella contamination from alfalfa sprouts that took place in 1995. A few comments follow.

These were the first such incidents in the (then) 35-year history of the sprout industry. There were no fatalities.

Both incidents were traced to a single source of contaminated seed imported from the Netherlands.

All alfalfa seeds since 1995 have been subject to strict scrutiny and purification. The sprout industry today is in full compliance with the CDC and USDA.

Sprout contamination makes sensational news for the following reasons: 

a) Prior to 1995, the tiny sprout industry was virtually unknown to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). It attracted great attention because it was new and undiscovered.

b) The USDA and CDC took a greater interest in sprouts because the growing conditions for seeds are also favorable growing conditions for bacteria and, as a raw food, sprouts do not benefit from sterilization by cooking.

c) Sprouts are famous as legendary health foods. The incidence of salmonella is especially newsworthy because of the irony of a health food causing ill health.

Unlike other industries, such as meat, poultry, and tobacco, the tiny $250 million dollar sprout industry has no public relations firm or Washington lobbyists to defend itself. Thus, the public only knows a small part of the story.

The risk factor for contracting salmonella from eating sprouts is far less than that of other common foods.

According to the USDA, each year, salmonella contamination from foods such as poultry, meat, eggs and fresh produce sickens 4 million people annually in the U.S. The two 1995 sprout incidents reached only an estimated 20,000.According to the FDA, 93% of all bacterial illnesses from human and animal pathogens come from meat, poultry and dairy. In 1995, the CDC documented 15 fatalities caused by reactions to foods such as peanuts, milk, eggs and shellfish. Every year, there are an estimated 9,000 deaths and 81 million illnesses due to unsafe foods. (Wall Street Journal 8/21/98)

In 1997, Cox Newspapers analyzed a USDA computerized database of meat and poultry inspection records for 1996 and found 138,593 instances in which inspectors said food being prepared in packing plants was "certain" to sicken consumers. The database was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Our food supply is not the only source of bacterial infection. Each year, about 2 million people acquire infections while under care in U.S. hospitals and nearly 90,000 people die of them, according William Jarvis of the CDC. (Based on a 1998 survey of 265 U.S. hospitals).

Sprouts are a nutritionally concentrated, pesticide-free, locally grown, fresh produce available year round. It is easily available to populations where fresh foods distribution is too expensive or impractical.

Eating alfalfa sprouts is statistically safer and healthier than eating meat, dairy or poultry. The U.S. food and water supply will never be free of harmful bacteria. Nevertheless, most Americans have confidence that their foods are safe. Sprout growers are working closely with the CDC and USDA to produce safe, healthy, and delicious sprouts.

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