That vegetables are essential for the proper functioning of the body has become clear: science has made an effort to confirm it. That is why these products form the basis of the Mediterranean diet, the one promoted by international institutions to improve general well-being and even increase life expectancy.
However, they are also foods that generate some fear in consumers, who doubt whether they may be contaminated, both by microorganisms and by the pesticides used to grow them.
Obviously, it is impossible to guarantee that food production is completely free of contaminating substances, whether chemical or biological. But by following a few simple guidelines we can minimize the risks, both to the health of the general population and to the environment.
Three concerns derived from vegetables
The first thing that often worries us about fresh vegetable products is whether they will contain chemicals derived from conventional agricultural practices. For example, pesticides.
However, European legislation in this regard is strict. Basically, it prohibits the use of certain chemical substances and limits the presence of others in our food. Likewise, the continuous surveillance and official control, coordinated by the health authorities, guarantee compliance with these regulations and show a high degree of compliance.
This is revealed by the latest report from the European Food Safety Authority. This document highlights that more than 98% of the samples analyzed in the last control complied with the maximum limits required.
Beyond pesticides, we are also concerned about the presence of microorganisms that may pose a danger to human health. And it is true that there are, but the risk of causing damage to our body is less than that which exists when consuming food of animal origin. Do not forget that vegetables are less prone to the development of microorganisms that can cause illness in people.
However, they are not risk free. The consumption of raw vegetables can be associated with outbreaks caused by viruses (hepatitis A and norovirus) or bacteria of fecal origin, such as Salmonella or pathogenic types of E. coli.
That they proliferate is something that consumers can avoid. It is worth knowing that vegetables naturally present a general non-pathogenic microbiota, although they could occasionally become contaminated during the different production stages (cultivation, harvesting, transport or making available to consumers). This contamination can have an environmental, animal or human origin.
A recent AESAN report concludes that the storage at room temperature of melon, watermelon, papaya and pineapple cut in half can pose a significant health risk due to exposure to bacteria Salmonella, E. coli verotoxigenic or Listeria monocytogenes. All of them are frequently associated with outbreaks of diarrhea.
In general, all bacteria must be taken into account, whether or not they have the capacity to cause disease in people, because they can potentially carry antibiotic resistance genes. This implies that they may contain genetic information that, once expressed, renders antibiotics ineffective. There are times when this resistance is not only against a single antibiotic but against several. In this case, we would speak of “superbug”.
In addition, this resistance can be transmitted to other nearby bacteria, increasing the magnitude of the problem. The current prevention and mitigation strategy is developed internationally through the approach One Healthwhich defends that the health of people is directly interrelated with animal and environmental health.
Along these lines, some studies show that fresh vegetables can also be carriers of these superbugs. However, the information available is still not as complete as that for products of animal origin. Hence the importance of increasing research effort.
Our research group, through the project #VegeColiResis highlighting the importance of fresh vegetables as vehicles for bacteria carrying antimicrobial resistance with potential transmission capacity to others, although mostly circumstantially associated with human disease (opportunistic).
Everyday tricks to consume vegetables safely
Consumers of fresh vegetable products can increase the safety of their consumption through very simple domestic practices.
First of all, it is essential to wash and disinfect vegetable products well. For example, with a plug or tablespoon of bleach suitable for disinfecting water in about 3 liters of water. This technique is important for vegetables that we are going to consume raw. In this way we will effectively eliminate dangerous microorganisms, also preventing superbugs from reaching us.
Another aspect of great importance for the safe consumption of fresh vegetables is to avoid cross contamination. In other words, we must prevent raw animal products from contaminating those for direct consumption. That is why it is advisable to maintain good hygiene of the surfaces and utensils used for the preparation of both types of products.
In the same way, the storage of food products in our refrigerators must be rational and clean frequently.
In short, fresh vegetables provide us with a large number of benefits that make their regular consumption essential. However, we must be aware of its potential risks to human health.
Fortunately, and according to the constant vigilance of the health authorities, these dangers are minimized by maintaining good practices in agricultural and livestock production and with reasonable hygienic measures in homes.