Eat at Your Own Risk

The 10 most hazardous foods—and how to eat them healthfully.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

Alfalfa Sprouts

By Sally Wadyka for MSN Health & Fitness
When you think of "dangerous" food, it probably conjures up images of eating slugs and bugs on Survivor. But most of the estimated 76 million Americans who experience food-borne illnesses each year are sickened by nothing more exotic than fruit, vegetables, grilled chicken or coleslaw at a summer picnic.
Here, the top 10 foods you want to consume with caution.
Alfalfa sprouts
The danger: "Sprouts are at the top of the list when it comes to potential problems," says Michael Doyle, Ph.D., director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia. "The conditions for producing sprouts promote the growth of harmful bacteria." In order to grow sprouts, the seeds are soaked and kept moist—a prime breeding ground for bacteria. (Salmonella is the most common illness associated with sprouts).
The safer solution: While Doyle reports that some researchers are looking at ways to test the water in which sprouts are grown in order to identify batches that are contaminated, it's not yet a foolproof system, and recalls and illness outbreaks are still common. Growing sprouts yourself at home is also no guarantee of safety—the same conditions that breed bacteria in commercial sprouts can exist no matter how careful you are. Washing sprouts does not clean away harmful bacteria, so the only way to guarantee safety is to cook them. "Unfortunately, when you cook them, they pretty much disappear," says Ruth Frechman, R.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, who nonetheless mixes sprouts into cooked soups and stir-fries.
1 of 11 Alfalfa sprouts (© Corbis/SuperStock)


The danger: The good news about eggs is that it's the rare egg that will make you sick. "About one in every 10,000 eggs has salmonella," says Frechman. "It's a very low risk, but you never know when it'll be your egg." And since the bacteria can be inside the egg, the only way to eradicate it is to thoroughly cook your eggs.
The safer solution: Avoid raw eggs (like in cookie dough or Caesar salad dressing) as well as undercooked ones. Runny eggs are a potential danger zone—to be safe, you want to eat them well-cooked and solid. One option: look for eggs that are pasteurized in the shells. The pasteurization kills any bacteria that might be present so you can safely eat your eggs soft boiled or over easy.
2 of 11 Eggs (© Christoph Wilhelm/Nonstock/Jupiterimages)

Rare Burgers

The danger: Eating raw or very rare beef is always a bit risky. Beef has the potential for carrying salmonella or E. coli contamination. And even when the meat is produced under the most ideal conditions, there is still a risk that it can harbor bacteria. The only way to fully guarantee that it is bacteria-free is to buy meat that has been irradiated. And ground beef is more risky than, say, a steak, because it is handled more, and after being ground it has greater surface area on which to harbor bacteria.
The safer solution: While a rare burger is defined as one cooked to 140 degrees or below, a burger has to be cooked to at least 160 degrees in order to kill any bacteria and be considered safe. At 160 degrees, a burger will look more brownish than pink in the center. But Frechman recommends using a meat thermometer to check your burgers before serving to ensure you've cooked them enough.
3 of 11 Burgers on the grill (© Tetra Images/Corbis)

Packaged Greens

The danger: Leafy greens—including cut lettuces and spinach—have been responsible for several outbreaks of disease and product recalls in recent years. One of the biggest scares was the 2006 E. coli outbreak that was eventually linked to bagged spinach that sickened 199 people and was implicated in three deaths. There are many ways that bacteria like E. coli or salmonella can infect produce—from infected animal feces that infiltrate the water or soil or from handling procedures during the picking or packaging. In most situations, washing the produce will not wash away the risk.
The safer solution: "Packaged greens are not more likely to carry contamination, but it is possible that you could have less likelihood of contamination if you properly prepare a head of lettuce than if you bought it pre-packaged," says Doyle. He suggests that head lettuce, such as iceberg or romaine, is most likely to be contaminated on the outer leaves, so it's possible to remove those outer leaves, wash your hands, cutting board and knife, then prepare the rest of it. In the case of leaf lettuce and spinach, it's all equally exposed to contamination, so there isn't much you can do to minimize your risk.
4 of 11 Lettuce growing (© Douglas Peebles/Corbis)


The danger: The primary cause for concern with sushi is the presence of parasites—tapeworms, flatworms and roundworms, for example—in the raw fish. To minimize risk, eat sashimi (sushi made with raw fish) at restaurants where the chefs not only know how to purchase the best fish, but also know how to identify and remove parasites during preparation. While no raw fish can be guaranteed safe, dipping it in soy sauce and wasabi may have a mildly antimicrobial effect.
The safer solution: Cooking fish to at least 145 degrees for a minute or more will kill any parasites residing in the fish. But then you no longer have sushi! The only way to eat it raw and still be sure it's not harboring any parasites is to eat fish that has been frozen before it became sushi. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends freezing fish to an internal temperate of -31 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 hours in order to kill parasites.
5 of 11 Sushi (© Renee Comet/FoodPix/Jupiterimages)


The danger: Raw chicken is a notorious carrier of salmonella and campylobacter bacteria. It's fairly easy not to serve chicken that's contaminated—just make sure you cook it thoroughly with no pink showing when you cut it open (no one wants their chicken served rare anyway!). The biggest risk factors for getting sick is not from eating the chicken, but from cross-contamination during your prep and cooking.
The safer solution: Be careful when handling raw chicken. After cutting it up, immediately and thoroughly wash the knife, cutting board, the countertops and your hands to eliminate the risk of spreading the bacteria to other food in your kitchen. And when you bring the raw chicken outside to put it on the grill, take that plate back inside and get a new one on which to serve the cooked chicken.
6 of 11 Raw chicken (© Ben Fink/FoodPix/Jupiterimages)


The danger: Old wives' tales aside, it appears that mayonnaise really isn't all that risky. But because myths abound about food poisoning at family picnics caused by mayonnaise-laced salads, slaws and sandwiches, the condiment still made our list—if for no other reason than to debunk those myths. "The FDA standards for commercially prepared mayonnaise mean it has to have a certain pH and acidity [which were chosen] based on studies to kill salmonella," says Doyle. "So putting mayonnaise into a salad can actually have an anti-microbial effect."
The safer solution: Homemade mayonnaise is still as risky as the mayonnaise myth would have you believe. So if you do make homemade mayonnaise, be sure to keep it—and anything made with it—refrigerated at all times.
7 of 11 Mayonnaise (© Pornchai Mittongtare /FoodPix/Jupiterimages)


The danger: A recall of cantaloupe imported from Honduras because of salmonella contamination focused attention on the melon. The rind that encases the fruit may harbor the bacteria, but it's easily transferred to the edible flesh inside once it's cut up.
The safer solution: Doyle reports that some producers treat the exterior of melons with steam to kill the bacteria without affecting the inside of the fruit. But there's no way to know if you are getting one of these treated melons. Washing the skin may help, but with so many cracks and crevices in the rind, it's not necessarily an effective solution. You can be careful with the way cut-up cantaloupe is stored (at home or at the store). "Harmful bacteria can thrive and multiply at room temperature," says Doyle, so he recommends steering clear of any cut fruit that isn't kept refrigerated.
8 of 11 Cantaloupe (© C Squared Studios)

Unpasteurized Cheese

The danger: Unless you're getting your milk fresh from the cow, chances are it has been pasteurized—a heat treatment process designed to kill bacteria (including salmonella, listeria and E. coli) present in the milk. But even those who wouldn't think of drinking unpasteurized milk may be unknowingly eating cheese made from that same untreated milk. Many soft cheeses—including brie, feta and goat cheese—are unpasteurized. Although federal regulation requires that domestic and imported unpasteurized cheeses be aged for at least 60 days, cheeses made from raw milk still carry some risk of contamination. Because of that risk, it's recommended that pregnant women, children, the elderly and anyone else with a compromised immune system avoid eating them.
The safer solution: Steering clear of unpasteurized cheese is as easy as reading the label. "The ingredients will clearly list whether the cheese contains pasteurized or unpasteurized milk," Frechman says. And while those unpasteurized versions can be delicious, just know that you're taking your chances.
9 of 11 Milk and cheeses (© Tetra Images/Corbis)

Salad Bar Fixings

The danger: It may be the ultimate in convenience to swing by the salad bar and choose from a wide array of ingredients that are all chopped up and ready to mix into a customized meal. But letting someone else do all the prep work can result in some unhealthy surprises. "The biggest factors contributing to potentially unsafe salad-bar food are foods that aren't kept hot or cold enough, handling of food by workers with poor hygiene, and refilling partially used containers of perishable food with fresh food," says Doyle.
The safer solution: Be sure your salad bar food is kept at the proper temperature (cold food kept cold, hot ones heated sufficiently), that workers practice safe food handling, and that enough people buy food there to keep the supplies fresh. Also, Frechman cautions against salad bars that don’t have a sneeze guard to protect the food from airborne bacteria.
10 of 11 Salad bar (© Ron Chapple/Thinkstock Images/Jupiterimages)