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Are there any safety concerns with sprouts?

Sprouts have been the subject of safety concerns in two areas. By far the biggest area of concern has been foodborne illness. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), spouts have been associated with over 1,300 cases of food borne illness in the U.S between the years 1995-2000. This connection makes sense to me because the growing conditions for sprouts can also be ideal growing conditions for bacteria.

Over the past 10 years, the FDA has at times issued recommendations that all sprouts be cooked rather than being consumed in raw form due to the risk of foodborne illness, including illness related to Salmonella and E. coli 157:H7. The FDA has also issued guidelines to manufacturers for increasing the safety of sprouts. I believe that many producers of sprouts (particularly producers of certified organic sprouts) do a good job of implementing these safety rules and make sprouts that are nourishing, delicious, and safe. I encourage you to enjoy the special benefits of these sprouts! However, if you are planning to sprout your own seeds at home and add sprouts to your diet in this way, or if you are considering the purchase of sprouts of unknown quality, I consider doing so to be of much higher risk.

If you do decide to purchase sprouts in the grocery store, here are some additional steps that you can take in order to help increase their safety:

  • Wash all sprouts thoroughly with filtered water before eating them.
  • Look for the International Sprout Growers Association seal on the package, or if you are buying bulk, ask your grocer if the sprouts are ISGA-approved.
  • If the sprouts are pre-packaged, only purchase if the sell-by date has not yet expired.
  • Examine the sprouts to make sure the roots are clean. If the stem color is not white or creamy, do not purchase them. Do not purchase sprouts if the buds are no longer attached or if they are dark in color.
  • Smell the sprouts to be sure that they have a clean, fresh odor and do not smell musty.
  • Keep the sprouts refrigerated.
  • Two days after the sell-by date or two days after the date you purchase your sprouts (whichever comes sooner), compost them rather than consuming them yourself.
  • If you're buying in bulk, ask your grocer about the sell-by date.
  • If you are sprouting seeds at home, follow the same guidelines described above as far as examining their stems, buds, roots, and odor. Additionally, make sure your sprouts stay refrigerated, and always finish eating them within 48 hours and rinse them thoroughly with filtered water before eating. Finally, before sprouting seeds on your own at home, try to obtain ISGA-certified seeds. If you cannot find ISGA-certified seeds in your market or by asking your grocer, have your grocer confirm the quality of whatever seeds (including legumes, grains, nuts, seeds) you buy for sprouting. Do not sprout seeds if you cannot confirm their quality. While your seeds need not be ISGA-certified, they do need to be non-contaminated and safe for sprouting.

If you decide that you are interested in growing sprouts yourself at home, one excellent source of information is the University of California's "Growing Seed Sprouts at Home" safety manual.

The second area of safety concern—and a much smaller one—involves a non-protein amino acid called canavanine. Concerns about this amino acid are based primarily on animal studies and have usually involved alfalfa sprouts, alfalfa tablets, and alfalfa seeds. Some evidence exists for approaching canavanine in alfalfa sprouts as an aggravating substance with potentially unwanted health consequences for individuals diagnosed with lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus, or SLE).

There is also some evidence suggesting interference of canavanine with the metabolic pathways for another similar amino acid called arginine. I haven't seen any research to suggest that the canavanine in alfalfa sprouts is a problem for healthy individuals adding alfalfa sprouts to their salads or sandwiches. Since there are many vegetable seeds that can be sprouted—including broccoli sprouts, mung bean sprouts, sunflower seed sprouts, green pea sprouts, clover sprouts, and radish sprouts—we would still encourage you to consider the benefits of other high-quality sprouted vegetables, even if you choose to avoid alfalfa sprouts.

References

Alcocer-Varela J, Iglesias A, Llorente L, et al. Effects of L-canavanine on T cells may explain the induction of systemic lupus erythematosus by alfalfa. Arthritis Rheum. 1985;28(1):52-57.

Bengtsson AA, Rylander L, Hagmar L, et al. Risk factors for developing systemic lupus erythematosus: a case-control study in southern Sweden. Rheumatology.(Oxford) 2002;41(5):563-571.

Kasai T, Sakamura S. Reexamination of Canavanine Disappearance During Germination of Alfalfa (Medicago Sativa). J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 1986;32():1:77-82.

Lorenz K. Cereal Sprouts: Composition, Nutritive Value, Food Applications. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 1980;13(4): 353-85.

Ponka A, Andersson Y, Siitonen A, et al. Salmonella in alfalfa sprouts. Lancet 1995;345:462-463.

Prete PE. The mechanism of action of L-canavanine in inducing autoimmune phenomena. Arthritis Rheum. 1985;28(10):1198-1200.

Rajkowski KT. Simplified Qualitative Method for Canavanine in Seeds and Sprouts. J Food Prot. 2004;67(1):212-4.

Taormina PJ, Beuchat LR, Slutsker L. Infections associated with eating seed sprouts: an international concern. Emerg.Infect.Dis 1999;5(5):626-634.

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