Should you eat your leafy greens?

Greens come with health benefits, risk of contamination

SAN ANTONIO – If you think you can’t go wrong eating leafy greens like lettuce, kale and spinach, you’re mostly right, according to Consumer Reports.

Leafy greens are rich in nutrients, but they can also carry contaminants like E. coli.

Greens have been linked to reducing the risk of heart disease, some cancers and Type 2 diabetes. However, along with those star-studded benefits, there is also a risk.

Between 2006 and 2019, greens like romaine, spinach and bags of spring mix were responsible for at least 46 national outbreaks of E. coli, causing many hospitalizations and some deaths.

“So, here’s the challenge - we want people to eat these green vegetables, but they’re easily contaminated by bacteria,” said James Dickerson, Ph.D, CR’s chief scientific officer.

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Bacteria that comes from animal feces, which can get onto the foods we eat.

Many greens, especially romaine lettuce, are grown in California and Arizona. For farmers, keeping fields free of dangerous bacteria is a challenge.

“You’re always worried about contamination from animals,” said Amber Brouilette, farmer. “If you’re growing leafy greens, even just wild birds flying overhead increases the risk of contamination by salmonella and E. coli.”

Farmers take precautions like keeping animals away from fields, sanitizing equipment and boots, and wearing gloves. Even so, it’s still possible for contaminants to end up in the greens.

So, should you stop eating leafy greens?

For most people, the nutritional benefits far outweigh the potential contamination risks, according to CR.

Not everyone exposed to salmonella or E. coli gets sick. But, for people who are most vulnerable, meaning pregnant women, older adults, infants, young children and people with compromised immune systems, CR suggests they carefully consider whether to eat raw greens.

“One of the best things you can do is cook it,” Dickerson said. “Cook it to the point where it’s wilted.”

Even if labels say greens have been triple-washed, CR says that’s primarily designed to remove dirt and grit, but does not ensure greens are free of bad bacteria.

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