They're crunchy or spicy. They add flavor or give meals a decorative touch. They're low in calories, full of vitamins and iron and add to your menu in a dozen creative ways.
They are sprouts. Great for salads, sandwiches or blended drinks.
Now here's a new one about sprouts maybe you haven't heard before: They can also be bad for you.
Talk about trying to spoil a party: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in recent weeks has warned that you shouldn't eat any raw sprouts if you are in one of these "risk" categories: children, the elderly, pregnant women or those with deficient immune systems.
If you're high-risk and just can't live without them, officials said, at least avoid raw alfalfa sprouts. They carry the greatest danger of forming bacteria that can cause food-borne illness.
No one is yet saying sprouts are a risk for healthy adults. Just be aware, government officials say, of the 11 outbreaks of illness from sprouts over the past four years, including one in California.
"Sprouts are of great national concern," said James Waddell, the state's acting chief of food safety. "But right now we believe it's generally OK to buy sprouts at the store unless you're among that high-risk group."
None of this, of course, is good news for sprout lovers, especially those who sell or grow them.
John White, produce manager for Mother's Market & Kitchen, said he's never had a complaint of illness from eating sprouts bought at any of the chain's three Orange County health food delis.
But that doesn't mean White is discounting what the federal government has to say. He warns against ever buying sprouts unless you know they've gone through a series of tests for harmful bacteria. White says his stores insist on these tests before putting them on the shelves.
"There is a downside to sprouts," White said. "You have no way of knowing where those sprouts came from."
The sprout industry, while not happy with the negative publicity, is in no way downplaying it. The International Sprout Growers Assn. prominently displays on its web site two new sets of FDA guidelines for sprout growing aimed at reducing the risk of harmful bacteria. The FDA warns that it will take serious enforcement action against any grower responsible for an outbreak of food-borne illness if that grower has ignored the new guidelines.
The industry is also cooperating with Waddell's office, which is producing a video--one the FDA hopes to use nationally--to help sprout growers improve their methods. California also got federal permission to use previously unapproved calcium hypochlorite treatments to decontaminate sprout seeds.
Don't think that just growing your own sprouts from seeds you buy will eliminate the problem. The experts fear that the seeds themselves may harbor the most bacteria. Some FDA officials say some seeds may become contaminated by animals in the field or from fertilizer. But everything is still under study, including methods for storage.
"You grow sprouts in almost an incubator atmosphere," Waddell said. "It's great for sprouts, but also great for growing bacteria."
Government experts are careful not to create a sprouts scare. It's a $250 million market in the U.S., the growers association estimates. The FDA suggests that one of every 10 Americans eats sprouts regularly.
Sprouts never touched by contamination get raves as a healthy food. Broccoli sprouts are now being touted by doctors as containing agents that can prevent cancer.
The most popular sprout? The highest at-risk one, alfalfa, says Julie Arbiso, owner of Nature's Own Nutrition in Anaheim. The seeds sell for under $4 a packet. Many have reported back that sprouts are great for easing arthritis. Most customers, she said, believe the sprouts are safe if carefully washed.
Maggie Kaas, owner of Small Planet Health Food in Irvine, believes most risk can be eliminated by simply washing the sprouts. But she warns some may not wash them thoroughly enough.
"I wash the heck out of them," she said. "We've never had a health problem reported from our sprouts."
Here are the recommendations from the FDA:
* Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature.
* Select crisp-looking sprouts. Avoid musty-smelling, dark, or slimy-looking sprouts.
* Refrigerate at home.
* Wash hands thoroughly before and after handling the sprouts, and wash the sprouts thoroughly.
Of course, the absolute best protection against any harmful bacteria from sprouts, said one FDA official "would be to cook them. But for most sprouts, that would defeat the purpose, wouldn't it."
By the way, for those sprouts you do cook (kidney or pinto bean sprouts, for example), the experts say steam or stir fry them instead of boiling them. There's less vitamin loss that way.
Who should not eat alfala sprouts: anyone with a high risk for food-borne disease--children, the elderly, people with compromised immune systems.
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How to Eat Sprouts Safely