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Learning why sprouts are actually really bad for you

Germans recently underwent a serious crisis of confidence. Their vaunted reputation for superior food quality was devastated. A massive outbreak of an extremely harsh E.Coli bacteria had sickened over 3,000 people and led to (as of today) 37 confirmed deaths. It is estimated that over 100 of those who will survive the infection will either require new kidneys or be confined to a life determined by scheduled blood dialysis.

It was fresh produce that caused this outbreak, not tainted meat, and after a spectacular false start, the culprit was finally, mercifully, found. It was bean sprouts. Those cute little baby plants that people often put on salads because they are supposedly so very, very healthy. Sprouts are supposedly full of vitamins and are really easy to grow. A quick online search will yield hundreds of separate sprout businesses, all centered around the health benefits of eating sprouts.

Unfortunately, recent research has shown that sprouts can be very far from healthy eating. The risks associated with sprouts are considered so great that Health Canada launched a web-page on the risks of eating sprouts in 2007.  (link)
In the United States a search for the word ’sprouts’ on the CDC (Center for Disease Control) website turned up almost a thousand articles. Most of them detail food poisoning linked to sprouts, including the famous Saint Paul Salmonella outbreak in 2009 which affected hundreds of people in 14 states. The outbreak was finally traced to contaminated alfalfa (luzerne or lucerne) sprouts. (link)

So what is going on? How can sprouts be so good for you and so bad for you at the same time? E. Coli does not occur naturally in plants, nor does salmonella, how is this happening?

The problem it seems, is the seeds. According to Health Canada, and research from the University of Georgia, seeds can come in contact with animal diseases (like E. coli or Salmonella) through manure either during harvesting, or storage (link) (link). A few microbes are all that is needed. Since sprouts are grown in warm, moist conditions, such as hydroponic systems, or in greenhouses or hot rooms, the bacteria can flourish. Despite their being outside of a living host they survive and multiply because the conditions in a greenhouse are close enough to the warm, wet organs of animals or people.

The problem is sprouts, once harvested, are often not cooked. Because sprouts are eaten raw, any bacteria on or in the sprout goes straight into the body and the trouble begins within a few days or weeks at the most. To make matters worse, thoroughly washing the seeds before growing them, even in chlorinated water, seems to have no effect. (link) To kill the various bacteria, the sprouts must be thoroughly cooked.

A study on sprout based diseases, from the University of Georgia, published on the CDC website shows the problem of food poisoning via sprouts is significant, having become a global concern. Infectious outbreaks have occurred in many countries and continue to this day. (link)

I’ve always liked sprouts, plain or in salads. I even did some promotional work for a sprouting company some years ago. I particularly like alfalfa sprouts, and often found that they were a great addition to sandwiches. I do not think this way anymore.

Sprouts are actually really bad for you.

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