In your head, you’re the type of girl who would cut and massage her kale daily. In reality, though, you’ve got another hell week at work, which means tossing pre-washed baby spinach into your shopping cart is key. Like it or not, you know that little baggie is probably going to be the difference between a string of healthy homemade lunches — and the day-to-day dash outside your office building for whatever quick-and-easy fuel you can find.
But with so many scary headlines about recalled lettuce greens and the bacterial company they keep — we’re talking stomach-sabotaging, potentially deadly strains like salmonella and listeria — can you really trust what your grocery store is selling? The experts say…yes. In most cases, don’t stress. But, do understand what you can do to keep your salads a little safer. “I think the history shows it — they sell billions and billions of bags of these a year, and in most cases, people don’t get ill,” says Michael Doyle, PhD, Director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. “But, the reality is, there aren’t always enough safeguards in place, so there’s always a slight chance.”
Okay, let’s back up and run through the speedy version of the science, so you understand the risk you’re dealing with here. Any produce growing outside is going to be exposed to wildlife, irrigation water, soil — a whole host of potential contaminants that are beyond a farmer’s control. (This is why we wash our fruits and veggies, after all.) Bagged leafy greens are no different. They get triple-washed at the processing plant, swished around in chlorine water before they’re stuffed into plastic containers or bags, then shipped off to your supermarket.
But, there’s a catch with these little bagged salads: The greens are often cut first, which could transfer whatever bacteria are lurking on those leaves inside the vegetable. Once they’re in there, they can’t really be washed away, says Doyle. “The good news is, it doesn’t happen that often,” he says. “The bad news is, when it does, you might get sick.”
Marisa Moore, MBA, RD, LD, a food and nutrition consultant in Atlanta and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, echoes the same concerns. But, she says you’re probably risking your health much more if you start skipping salad greens out of fear. They’re full of fiber, low in calories, and high in antioxidants that can protect you against cancer and keep your eyes and skin healthy. “The big message here is that getting your leafy greens is most important,” she says. “But, you do have to take special care to make sure they’re as safe as possible.”
Before you crack the plastic on another bagged salad, read these tips carefully. Because, while you might not be able to control what happens pre-bagging (remember, the risk is pretty low, statistically speaking), you can control your salad’s journey to your plate and your mouth, which — both experts agree — is just as important.
1. Look before you grab. At the grocery store, don’t just make sure that bag of greens isn’t expired. Go for the absolute latest “use by” date you can find. (In one Consumers Union test, bagged salad greens that were closer to their “use by” date had higher levels of contamination.) You’ll also want to inspect what’s happening on the inside. If the greens are already discolored or damaged, toss that bag back. The same goes for packages where condensation has collected at the bottom. “Moisture is one thing that can make bacteria grow faster,” says Moore.
2. Keep them cold. You know how you’ll let the veggies sit out while you put the other groceries away? Make it a priority to stuff them in the fridge first, right along with your yogurt and milk. Even if it’s only brief, warm temps will cause bacteria to grow, just like moisture does. (Don’t let your lunchtime salad sit out on your desk all morning, either.)
3. Forget rewashing. Most bags or containers will say “pre-washed” or “triple-washed” — and if they do, there’s really no point in rinsing them again. For one, you might expose them to more bacteria in your sink or its surroundings. But, getting them wet again also increases the moisture (no salad spinner is 100% effective, says Moore), which then breeds any bacteria that may or may not already be in the leaves.
4. Eat them quickly. Not to sound like a broken record here, but you want to get these fresh — and eat them fresh, too. That means no family-size bags or bulk buys if you’re single. “You want to buy exactly what you need for the next couple of days,” says Moore. “The bottom line is, the longer you keep them, the more chances there are for the bacteria to multiply.” So, eat up — and fast.