Is that a list of superfoods? No, it is a list of foods that the health action organization, Center for Science in the Public interest released as their list of the top 10 riskiest foods for Americans to eat. Here they are listed in order from the highest risk to the least risk: 1) Leafy greens 2) Eggs 3) Tuna fish 4) Oysters 5) Potatoes 6) Cheese 7) Ice cream 8) Tomatoes 9) Sprouts 10) Berries (Today’s Menu: Breakfast: Cereal topped with berries ; Mid-morning snack: hard-boiled egg; Lunch: tunafishsandwich topped with lettuce & tomato , Afternoon snack: string cheese , Anticipated dessert: ice cream. Done, I just ate 7/10 ten risky foods… So how did these seemingly healthy foods make the top 10 riskiest list? Basically, these foods along with seven other foods make up 40% of all of the foodborne related illnesses and outbreaks dating back to 1990. According the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) these 10 foods caused ~1,500 outbreaks and over 50,000 illnesses. CSPI didn’t release this information with the intent to stop us from eating these foods, but more so to send strong message to the Food and Drug Administration to tighten up ship. CSPI feels that the food safety “police” should set and enforce more stringent food safety regulations so Americans can trust their food system. As you can see by my menu today, I haven’t eliminated these foods from my diet. However, this release did remind me to continue to do what “I” can do to best protect myself and my family from foodborne illness. “Lettuce” start with greens . Although convenient, many of the leafy green outbreaks were associated with eating bagged, pre-washed greens. Bagged greens compared to the simple head of lettuce are more processed, handled and come into contact with a larger amount of leafy greens. Because of this, bagged lettuce might have a higher risk of contamination. Greens as a whole, grow close to the ground, and therefore are more susceptible to pathogens due to contaminated irrigation water, manure, and unsafe handling practices. Take home message: remove the outer leaves, rinse greens several times, and rinse greens even if it says it has been pre-washed. Eggs: Most people are aware that eggs can be contaminated with salmonella both on the outside and inside of the egg. Cooking your egg throughly is the best way to protect yourself. Tuna Fish: The “type” of tuna largely associated with outbreaks was fresh or raw tuna, not the canned tuna I have in my sandwich today. Unfortunately, the type of contaminant found in tuna cannot be cooked away, so you can go ahead and eat your sushi raw. Do be sure that the tuna comes from reputable source. Most fish contamination occurs when the fish is left in warm temperatures for too long. Oysters : Basically, anyone takes a risk when they eat raw oysters. Most reported oyster outbreaks tended to occur from restaurants where poor food handling was the culprit. Therefore, your fate is left in the hands of those who handle your food, so weigh the pros and cons. Fortunately, this is an easy decision for me, I love the cracker with horseradish and hot sauce, but I do without the oyster. Potatoes: Luckily the beloved potato, is incriminated because of the ingredients it associates itself with: mayo and sour cream. The tuber is also more susceptible because it is in close contact with the soil and therefore is at higher risk for the same reason lettuce is. Take home? Don’t leave your “salads” out longer than two hours in the danger zone (40-140 degrees), and scrub the outside of your potato well. Cheese: Making cheese requires several steps (curdling, salting, processing) therefore, there are more opportunities for contamination. In addition, softer cheeses like brie or camembert, tend to carry higher risk of listeria and should be avoided by pregnant women. Ice Cream: The outbreaks with ice cream tend to be related to using contaminated eggs and unsafe food handling practices by your local ice cream scooper. You can bet my frozen yogurt haven, Fro Yo, will still be getting my business. Tomatoes:Because tomatoes are frequently eaten raw, and usually come into contact with soil, they also have a higher risk of carrying pathogens. Washing tomatoes well and using separate cutting boards for produce and raw meat will help to minimize risk. Sprouts : Some say we should completely avoid eating sprouts like alfalfa or mung bean sprouts because the “seed” houses the contaminant, and therefore no amount of rinsing can remove the problem. Sprouts require a warm and moist environment to grow, and unfortunately, that is the same type of environment that pathogens like to grow in as well. So unless you really love your sprouts, leaving them off your next sandwich might be a good idea. Berries: Fortunately, the largest outbreak with berries (strawberries) occurred way back in 1997, but berries like blackberries and raspberries have always carried a food borne illness risk. A thorough wash can help, but is not a guarantee that it can remove the risk. In summary, I hope this report doesn’t scare people away from eating foods like potatoes and berries, but serves as a reminder to handle our food safely, and most importantly speaks to those who set the policies and procedures so we can ensure that healthy food we eat, truly is healthy.
Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.