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Raw sprouts: The truth about how dangerous they are to eat

Justina Huddleston is an editor and the head writer for TDmonthly Magazine. She has been a freelance writer for several years, though her real passion is cooking. You can see the recipes she creates on her vegan food blog, A Life of Litt...

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You see it in the news with shocking regularity — bean sprouts getting recalled because they're contaminated and making people sick.

It's scary, because I eat sprouts a lot. They're super nutrient-dense and a great way to jazz up salads, wraps and stir-fries. But what is it about sprouts that makes them so susceptible to contamination? And is it safe to eat them? We tapped an expert, Amrie DeFrates, a registered dietitian certified in food safety, to find out.

It turns out the way they're grown is part of the problem.

What makes sprouts dangerous

"Sprouts require a warm and humid environment to grow, which is the perfect environment for bacterial growth," DeFrates told SheKnows.

More: Potatoes gone green: Why it happens and when you should avoid them

But it's not just that. Sprouts have a few unique traits that make them particularly vulnerable to bacteria.

"The seeds themselves can harbor bacteria that cause food poisoning," Defrates told us. And, "to maintain the quality of the sprouts during transportation, they are bagged with water, which can harbor bacteria."

Their wispy, curled shape creates problems too. "Sprouts are very difficult to wash compared to a vegetable with a smooth, large surface area," DeFrates explained.

Are sprouts safe to eat?

So what should we do? Is there a way to safely eat sprouts?

The answer is, it depends.

Buying organic vs. conventional sprouts doesn't make much of a difference. Both methods of farming bring the sprouts into contact with potential harborers of bacteria.

What's more important to look for is how the sprouts are packaged and stored.

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Tips for safer purchasing and handling of sprouts

"When purchasing sprouts, look for them in a refrigerated section that is maintained at or below 40 degrees [F]. To avoid any contamination while in transport or in the store, it is best to purchase a sealed product. This does not guarantee that the product was not contaminated in the field, however."

That said, "It is advised that anyone with a compromised or weakened immune system, such as the elderly, pregnant women, children and anyone on immunosuppressant medications, avoid raw sprouts."

For these people, "sprouts may be enjoyed safely only when they are cooked thoroughly," DeFrates advised.

So next time you pick up a package of sprouts at the store, proceed with caution. Wash the sprouts thoroughly before you eat them, and make sure to clean anything the raw, unwashed sprouts have come in contact with to prevent cross-contamination. Keep them refrigerated at 40 degrees F or lower, and if you're really concerned, you should eat sprouts only if you're going to cook them.

More: 5 brilliant chia seed hacks (VIDEO)

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