Eating Sprouts and Bean Sprouts in Pregnancy: Safe or Not?

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Sprouts are well known as a ‘dangerous’ food during pregnancy. They are more susceptible than other grains and veggies when it comes to passing on foodborne illnesses, but does that mean you need to stay away from sprouts completely?

Despite sprouts’ risky reputation, pregnant women can still enjoy the nutritious benefits of this crunchy vegetation. Sprouts that are thoroughly cooked to 165°F/75°C are safe to eat during pregnancy, which is what health organizations across the globe recommend.

Sprouts may be small, but there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. Consider this as your complete guide to sprouts, how safe they are to eat, grow, and even what to do if you’ve eaten raw sprouts and are concerned about food poisoning.

Why Raw Sprouts Are Unsafe During Pregnancy 

Sprouts seem like a quite benign veggie. After all, they’re pretty small and innocent-looking, and they have a reputation of being healthy and nutritious. But sprouts aren’t as safe as they may seem.

International health organizations, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), and the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, all agree that sprouts can be downright dangerous due to bacterial contamination (sources: FDA, MPI, NHS).

The problem is that bacteria, like Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Staph aureus, can make their way into the sprout seeds before the seeds even sprout. This means that, unlike many other veggies, the bacteria is near-impossible to wash away – so giving them a good rinse won’t make a difference.

Also, because sprouting typically occurs under the same damp and warm conditions that bacteria favor, sprouts can have very high levels of bacteria by the time they’re served on your lunch plate (source: FDA).

raw mung bean sprouts on a plate

Sprouts have even been the center of quite a few food recalls recently. Take this recall for bean sprouts in Canada and this one for clover sprouts in the United States, for example. American readers may also be familiar with frequent sprout recalls prompting the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s to remove sprouts from its menu entirely (source: HealthLine).

What’s more, many governmental health agencies also recommend that pregnant women avoid sprouts unless fully cooked to the familiar 165°F/75°C (sources: FDA, MPI, NHS).

Foods that are Classed as ‘Sprouts’

So raw and undercooked sprouts aren’t safe because of the risk of illness, but what exactly counts as a sprout?

The term “sprouts” is more of a category than a specific food. It refers to seeds that have been- you guessed it- sprouted, but haven’t had the time to grow into mature plants yet. The sprouts you see in grocery stores and restaurants are usually one of the following:

  • Bean sprouts
  • Moong beans/mung beans/green gram
  • Alfalfa
  • Clover
  • Radish
  • Mustard
  • Broccoli

Despite the wide variety, these different sprouts have very similar safety profiles so for the purpose of this article I’ll refer to all of them simply as “sprouts.”

The one type of sprouts with different safety considerations is “ready to eat” labelled sprouts. You may find some raw sprouts labeled as “ready to eat” because they don’t require preparation or cooking to be edible- but that doesn’t make them safe during pregnancy!

Alfalfa sprouts

On the other hand, canned sprouts labeled as “ready to eat” have usually been heated thoroughly during processing (source: Food Safety News). Of course, it’s still safest to reheat these sprouts to “steaming hot.” in order to ensure bacteria have been eliminated.

Sprouts are also found in processed foods. Specialty breads and other bakery products sometimes contain sprouted grains. Just like breads made without sprouted grains, the dough is fully baked in an oven set up to 500°F- definitely hot enough to wipe out bacteria!

Cooked foods with sprouts inside are therefore safe during pregnancy, as the cooking temperature will have killed any bacteria – more on this below.

While these breads may be found in the refrigerated or frozen aisles, they are safe to enjoy without cooking again. Just thaw or heat according to package instructions.

Cooked sprouts with rice and tofu

Are Sprouts Safe for Pregnant Women if They’re Cooked?

Cooking sprouts to 165°F/75°C is the only way to ensure that any bacteria in the seeds are gone (source: NHS). Washing just doesn’t cut it here, but more on that below.

Sometimes sprouts are added to a dish towards the end of cooking to help them retain their classic crunch. While the sprouts might be warm, they’re only lightly cooked and will likely not have reached a hot enough temperature to kill bacteria.

Pad thai, pho, ramen, and inside a toasted sandwich are examples of dishes where you might find these lightly cooked sprouts. These are best avoided during pregnancy, as the sprouts are only warm, and not cooked.

If you’re cooking at home, add the sprouts at the beginning of cooking or thoroughly heat them separately before adding to the dish. When dining out it’s safest to request that sprouts be omitted or served “steaming hot” on the side.

beef pho with beansprouts

Does Washing Sprouts Make Them Pregnancy-Safe?

Most fruits and veggies are 100% pregnancy-safe after a good washing, however, sprouts are an important exception. Because bacteria easily cling to the rough outer layer of the seeds, simply washing sprouts won’t make them safe (source: NHS).

While washing is a good first step, the only way to ensure sprouts are safe during pregnancy is if you thoroughly cook them before eating.

What are the Benefits of Eating Sprouts During Pregnancy?

Sprouts can be an incredibly nutritious addition to your meals- when fully cooked, of course!

Leafy sprouts, like alfalfa and clover sprouts, have a nutrition profile similar to other greens. They do give you a little protein, as well as some fiber, vitamin C, and magnesium (source: USDA).

The latter two are essential nutrients for your immune system, which is lowered during pregnancy. Radish sprouts are particularly high in vitamin C (source: International Sprout Growers Association).

Heartier sprouts, such as bean and wheat sprouts, pack a bit more nutrition into their small size. Pr cup, these sprouts boast 8-9 grams of protein and meet 3-4% of your daily need for fiber. They also contain a decent amount of iron and folate, which are crucial in supporting a healthy pregnancy and preventing maternal anemia (source: International Sprout Growers Association, WHO).

Variety of sprouted seeds and beans

Not only do sprouts provide some of the essential nutrients during pregnancy, but these nutrients may be more available to your body. The process of sprouting breaks down phytate, which is a naturally occurring compound in many plant foods that blocks complete absorption by binding to vitamins, minerals, and proteins.

With less phytate in the way, your body is able to absorb and use more of the nutrients in the food you eat (source: Harvard Health Publishing).

Some women also find sprouted grain products to be easier on their digestive tract. Similar to how sprouting decreases phytate, the sprouting process also starts the breakdown of harder to digest proteins and starches. Don’t worry about losing protein during sprouting, however. Those nutrients are still there, just in a more gut-friendly form (source: National Grains Council).

Should I Eat Sprouts Made at Home? 

Frequently purchasing sprouts can be a costly habit, however, sprouting your own food is relatively easy and inexpensive. There are even special sprouting jars you can buy to help you along and make the process even easier.

But just because it’s easy doesn’t make it the wisest choice, especially during pregnancy. Since sprouts are especially susceptible to bacterial contamination, they require more careful attention to sterilization. A few simple ways to maintain safety are:

  • The container used to sprout should be thoroughly cleaned, and it’s best if the container is sterilized in a dishwasher or boiled in hot water before using
  • Seeds should be purchased from a reputable supplier that tests for bacteria
  • Sprouts should be kept away from other raw foods, particularly raw meats

A good guide to safely growing sprouts at home can be found here.

Even if you choose to grow your own sprouts, that doesn’t make them safe to eat raw or undercooked. In order to keep you and baby safe, be sure to cook them thoroughly before eating.

sprouted wheatberries in a jar

I Accidentally Ate Raw or Undercooked Sprouts – What Should I Do?

If you’ve eaten raw or undercooked sprouts and just now learned that they’re a risky food- don’t panic! Though sprouts are safest for pregnant women when fully cooked, eating raw sprouts doesn’t mean you’ll automatically become ill.

In the United States, raw sprouts were implicated as the cause of 53,000 individual cases of illness over the span of 19 years. This comes down to less than 3,000 cases each year (source: Colorado State University). With a population of 328.2 million people, less than 1% of folks get sick from raw sprouts yearly.

Keeping an eye out for symptoms of food poisoning is the best course of action if you’ve accidentally eaten raw sprouts. Remember that some bacteria won’t cause illness for up to 10 days (source: Food Safety).

Most symptoms of foodborne illness come in the form of unpleasant bathroom habits like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Body aches and a mild fever are also classic signs.

These symptoms can be easily confused with morning sickness, so if you feel unwell it is best to give your medical provider a call. Let them know how you’re feeling and when you ate the sprouts.

Overall, sprouts can be a great way to get in a little protein, fiber, and immune boosting nutrients like vitamin C and magnesium. Not only are they versatile, but sprouts are also easy to grow at home- just be sure to follow the safe growing guidelines in the link above.

Unlike other veggies, washing alone doesn’t make them pregnancy-safe. Thorough cooking is the best way to ensure you and baby avoid the risk of foodborne illness.