“I have gotten salmonella from spinach a decade ago and a really horrible pathogen called C. Difficile (colitis) after finishing a course of a strong antibiotic for another health problem a few years back. About 20% of people can die from the second super-bug because it completely wipes out all other bacteria in your digestive system, turns all food you ingest into poison, and made me really sick for 4 months of repeated medical treatments.
Since I finally and reluctantly gave up eating raw vegetables after repeatedly getting digestive problems for days after enjoying a simple salad, I have not had as much stomach distress. I have been grilling or cooking vegetables instead, but I would like to try green smoothies for weight loss and adding more vegetables to my day. But I’m scared of the pathogen risks of raw foods. How can I make sure salmonella and other horrible pathogens don’t infect me through these greens?” – Arlene
DISCLAIMER: Keep in mind that I am not a doctor and you (and your doctor) know your unique health situation better than I do from just this one e-mail. The below is not medical advice and I am making no guarantees about the effectiveness of the solutions I provide. What I am writing about is based on my experience.
There is, of course, an inherent risk in eating raw vegetables. Personally, I don’t think the risk is severe, unless there is a medical condition that could cause a salmonella or e. coli infection to produce life-threatening complications. For most healthy people, a salmonella or e. coli infection won’t lead to death.
In the more than four years that Davy and I have eaten raw greens and vegetables extensively in our diets and in green smoothies, neither of us have gotten sick.
Of course, anytime you eat food at a restaurant, or food that was prepared by someone else, you run an additional risk of getting food poisoning. The person who handles your food, or the way in which it was prepared, or the equipment it was prepared on (including the water used to wash it), are all potential points of contamination.
You have the most control over the cleanliness of your food when you prepare it yourself. However, if the contamination occurs on the farm or in the plant that packages and distributes the produce, there is nothing you can do other than cook the food to reduce pathogen contamination risk.
From the research I’ve done into major pathogen outbreaks on vegetables such as spinach and tomatoes, they’ve tended to be from large-scale, non-organic farms. Bagged greens were implicated in the last few spinach and salad mix recalls in recent years.
Sometimes the source of contamination was traced back to the farm (tainted irrigation water) and sometimes it was traced to the facility that washes and packages the food. There is an added risk of contamination when you buy packaged, pre-washed greens and salad mix due to the processing.
We ONLY buy organic greens. When it comes to pre-washed, packaged spinach or spring mix, we usually buy Earthbound Farms brand. Other brands we routinely consume include Cal-Organic and PureVeg as well as produce from various small farms.
The majority of our leafy greens come from small and large-scale, organic farms in Mexico or the US and we get those at either Whole Foods or our local fruit and vegetable market in Chicago. We’ve never had a problem. All we do is wash the greens under tap water to remove any dirt.
We’ve spent the last six months in Mexico where there is a much greater risk of serious pathogen infection from produce than in the United States. Everybody there, both locals and non-locals, soak produce that will be eaten raw in a solution called Microdyne. Microdyne is an iodine-based solution. Stores also sell silver-based solutions since silver has antimicrobial properties. We used an organic citrus-based product that uses grapefruit seed extract as a disinfectant. (Some people soak produce in a diluted bleach solution but that just creeps me out.)
In the six months we lived in Mexico, we ate a ton of raw produce that would be considered high-risk for infection by US standards and we never once got sick – even when we ate salads at restaurants.
However, I don’t like to disinfect produce because there are beneficial bacteria that are destroyed as well. I also get a little concerned about what the trace residues of these disinfecting solutions in the produce that I eat might do to the healthy population of gut bacteria in my own body. If Microdyne kills bacteria on my spinach, then how is the Microdyne residue affecting healthy bacteria in my body? Unfortunately in Mexico and many other countries, you don’t really have a choice but to cook or disinfect produce…or risk parasite infection.
If you are worried about pathogen risk in greens, try a grapefruit seed extract solution to disinfect your greens. Be sure to rinse the greens off in clean water before consuming to get rid of any grapefruit seed extract on the leaves.
Cooking or steaming vegetables would be a good way of getting the nutrients with limited risk of exposure and make them more digestible. Steaming, however, won’t necessarily prevent you from getting sick, but it is the least destructive cooking method when it comes to preserving maximum nutrition.
However, I feel extremely safe eating organic produce that was grown in the USA. And I feel extremely safe eating produce grown in Mexico that is sold in the United States (I don’t disinfect any produce that I purchase in the USA).
Another thing I’ve read during my research is that those who have a healthy population of internal gut flora tend to be more resistant to infection. If your gut bacteria population is too low (from poor diet, use of antibiotics, disease), there’s more room for invaders to take hold. Perhaps rebuilding your intestinal gut flora with fermented foods and probiotics (as well as a diet rich in raw fruits and vegetables) would help.
There is always a risk of infection when you put anything into your body. For most people, this risk is minimal and not life threatening. In your situation, I would tread carefully and perhaps seek your doctor’s advice – or the advice of a qualified practitioner who works with people who have compromised digestion.
Read more articles about the raw food diet.
Tracy Russell is the creator of the Green Smoothie Health & Weight Loss Program and founder of Incredible Smoothies. She is passionate about helping people improve their health with green smoothies and a whole foods lifestyle.