Believe it or not, leafy greens are a big offender when it comes to food poisoning. Thankfully, science has a solution so you can enjoy your salads in peace

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
August 19, 2015
Corbis Images

For a food so healthy, spinach and other salad greens have caused a surprising amount of illness-18 outbreaks of food poisoning in the last decade, to be precise. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest lists leafy greens as the No. 1 offender for food poisoning, even above known hazards like raw eggs. Cookie dough is safer than salad? Say it isn't so!

Why So Dirty?

The problem isn't in the vitamin-packed vegetables themselves, but rather tenacious bacteria, like E. coli, that can live just below the surface of the leaf. Not only are greens subject to cross-contamination from the outside, but they're particularly vulnerable to drawing up germs in the soil and water. (Yikes! Also, make sure to avoid these 4 Food Mistakes that Make You Sick.)

Currently, commercial growers powerwash greens with bleach to remove icky germs. And while that's great for cleaning the outside of the plant, neither that nor a good sink scrub at home can dislodge sub-surface toxins. Even worse, according to NPR, re-washing your pre-washed greens at home may make the problem worse by adding bacteria from your hands, sink, and dishes. Ah, the perks of clean eating.

What Can We Do About It?

Thankfully, scientists have just developed a new cleansing process that targets the hidden germs in the porous surface of spinach, lettuce, and other leaves. By adding a titanium dioxide "photocatalyst" to the washing solution, researchers from the University of California-Riverside say they are able to kill 99 percent of bacteria that hide deep within the leaves. Even better, they say, this is a cheap and easy fix for farmers. Unfortunately, it's not in use yet, but the researchers say they hope to see it implemented soon.

This is great news for salad lovers. But know this: The risk of contracting a foodbourne illness from spinach is relatively low in the grand scheme of things. You're more likely to get a cavity from eating junk food than you are to get food poisoning from your healthy salad. Plus, a veggie-packed smoothie or bowl of greens is still one of the best things you can eat for your health. (In fact, it's one of The 8 Healthy Foods You Should Eat Every Day.) In addition to nourishing vitamins and filling fiber, greens can also help you make better food choices all around, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Researchers found that thylakoids, a naturally-occurring substance in spinach, decrease hunger and kill cravings for junk food by encouraging the release of satiety hormones. (Interestingly enough, the results were split by gender-men showed an overall decrease in hunger and cravings; women saw suppressed cravings for sweets.) The bummer: Even Popeye couldn't eat enough spinach to match the amount of thylakoid extract used in the study, but it's still evidence of the powers of greens.

But new research is constantly coming out showing new ways that eating vegetables is beneficial to our health: Just in the last year we've learned that eating greens daily helps reset your body clock, boosts your brain, and even decreases your risk of death from any cause. So load up at the salad bar and you too can say "I stay strong to the finish 'cause I eats my spinach," just like our favorite cartoon strongman. (And hey, if you use a little Olive Oil too, all the better!)

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