Leafy Greens – Are they worth the risk?

Protecting yourself from contaminants

If you’re trying for a healthy diet, chances are you’re eating plenty of nutrient-rich leafy greens. But while the health benefits of leafy greens abound, they can also carry contaminants like E. coli and other harmful bacteria. Consumer Reports is here to explain the root of the problem and how to protect yourself.

If you think you can’t go wrong eating leafy greens, like lettuce, kale and spinach, you’re mostly right — They’ve been linked to reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes.

But — behind their star-studded benefits lie risks that can be dangerous. 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 even some deaths.

“So here’s the challenge – we want people to eat these green vegetables but they’re easily contaminated by bacteria,” says James Dickerson Ph.D, Consumer Reports Chief Scientific Officer.

Bacteria that come from animal feces can get onto the foods we eat.

Many greens – especially romaine lettuce – are grown in California and Arizona. For leafy green farmers, keeping fields free from dangerous bacteria is a challenge!

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

It is important for farmers to take steps like keeping animals away from fields – sanitizing equipment and boots, and wearing gloves. — But even with these precautions, it’s still possible for contaminants to end up on the greens.

So should you stop eating leafy greens? — CR says that for most people, the nutritional benefits far outweigh the potential contamination risks.

Not everyone who is exposed to Salmonella or E.coli gets sick, but for people who are most vulnerable –– that includes pregnant women, older adults, infants and young children, and anyone with a compromised immune system  ––  they should carefully consider whether to eat raw greens.

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

And Consumer Reports says don’t be fooled by labels saying greens have been tripled washed — even the most thorough washes are primarily designed to remove dirt and grit—they can’t ensure that greens are bacteria-free.