While there are possible health risks, sprouts are seen by many consumers as a nutritious, healthful addition to their diets
Five years ago, Eartha Shanti was a fixture at Chico’s Saturday farmers’ market, where she sold sprouts she’d grown in her home to happy locals. These days, she’s still a regular at the market—but as a shopper, not a vendor. Too many regulations had gotten in the way of her sprouts business, and recent national attention on the tiny greens means more stringent policies might soon arise.
“I’d been growing in a converted closet,” Shanti said during a recent phone interview. “But at a certain point [growing sprouts] was put under California state regulations instead of Butte County regulations, and they had to be grown in a commercial kitchen, and every batch had to be tested for two different pathogens.”
She explained that this change was not mandated—the county simply realized it wasn’t the correct oversight agency. Nonetheless, the steps required to bring her garden up to code were too much for Shanti, so she stopped growing commercially.
“Sprouts offer super good nutrition,” said Shanti, who used to sell alfalfa, clover, mung, fennel, peanut and adzuki sprouts, in addition to her popular sprouts mixes. “They break down proteins and fats to a state that’s more easily assimilable in your body.”
But Shanti’s difficulty with state regulations five years ago was just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to those interested in growing sprouts today. Several outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli over the past several years have been traced to sprouts, putting them—along with other bacteria-carrying produce—on the federal government’s public-health radar.
“Produce has been identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the most commonly identified food vehicle for food-borne illness outbreaks,” Patrick Kennelly, of the California Department of Public Health’s Food and Drug branch, wrote in an email. “The Sprouts Safety Alliance is one of many produce safety initiatives that is currently going on in the United States.”
The Sprouts Safety Alliance Kennelly referred to was formed last year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with cooperation from the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health. The goal is to create guidelines for sprouts growers that will help increase the safety of their products. The main concerns are that sprouts are often grown in tubs inside (not in the ground), and that they’re usually consumed raw rather than cooked.
“Sprouts are grown in a warm moist environment, and are routinely flushed with water to maintain the moisture necessary for the sprouts to grow,” Kennelly said. “Unfortunately, this is the same type of growing environment that allows harmful bacteria to rapidly grow and reproduce.”
He explained that bacteria present on one seed can easily be spread to other seeds in the bin during the washing process.
“Conventional produce grown in soil is not typically exposed to the constant temperatures and moisture that allows bacteria to flourish as rapidly,” he continued. “Conventional produce has also been responsible for many food-borne illness outbreaks as well, but the opportunity of cross-contamination between plants is substantially reduced when compared to sprouts …”
People like Shanti who eat sprouts regularly tout their nutritional value as well as the ease with which they can be added to one’s diet.
“They’re an inexpensive, easy source of vegetable protein,” she said. “And they’re versatile; they’re great for people who are wanting to put more vegetable protein in their diets.”
Many sprouts are a good source of protein and vitamin C, according to the International Sprout Growers Association.
“Sprouts are the only form of agriculture that can be locally grown and available in all four seasons,” reads the organization’s website.
Sprouts also have been linked to cancer remedies as well as heart health. The University of Saskatchewan has studied the health effects of broccoli sprouts in pregnant rats and released its findings in 2006. A press release on the university’s website reads, “In effect, broccoli sprouts boost the body’s natural defenses against the oxidative stress that causes high blood pressure and inflammation. Surprisingly, this dietary change not only improves the health of the expectant mothers, but also has a lasting effect on the offspring.”
But, all news isn’t good news for sprouts and human health. Kennelly pointed to 3,000 people who became infected with E. coli in 2011 at a festival in Germany. The outbreak was linked to raw sprouts and led to 53 deaths.
When it comes to illness linked to consuming sprouts, many point to the fact that they are most often eaten raw. Kennelly suggests cooking them as the easiest way to kill harmful bacteria.
“It is next to impossible to determine if your sprouts are contaminated with dangerous bacteria that are capable of causing illness,” he said. “For that reason, we would recommend that consumers cook sprouts thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness, as cooking kills harmful bacteria.”
Even now, years after Shanti discontinued her sprouts stand, she’s approached often at the farmers’ market with questions about her intentions to start up again. As of now, the answer is no—the price tag is too high (registration fees range from $348-$1,790) and the requirements are too much for her to want to deal with. In fact, there are currently no registered sprouts growers in Butte County, according to the California Department of Public Health. (Organic sprouts are available locally at the Chico Natural Foods Cooperative, which buys them from a distributor in Sacramento, as well as at S&S Organic Produce and Natural Foods.)
Shanti’s not letting governmental rules get in the way of her own eating habits, however. Her belief in the nutritional value of sprouts keeps her growing for herself, and she said she would consider teaching a class about sprouting to others who are interested.
“I’ve been sprouting personally for 20 years,” she said. “Right now, really the only thing to do is to grow them yourself or grow them with someone you know.”