Because this leafy vegetable is rich in water- and fat-soluble vitamins, minerals and a wide variety of phytonutrients, there are many different ways to incorporate spinach into your meal plan and enjoy a variety of nutritional benefits.
However, the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Pretoria (UP) is warning the health-conscious about the safety of the superfood.
According to the department’s new study, conducted with the National Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), spinach bought from a vendor on the street is no less or more safe than spinach bought from an upmarket retailer.
The study suggest that the persistent presence of potentially disease-causing bacteria and food-borne pathogens on spinach requires interventions in both the formal and informal sectors.
Dr Stacey Duvenage, a senior post-doctoral fellow in UP’s food safety team, explains that “spinach, whether grown locally or globally, is a more risky crop”.
From a microbiological point of view, spinach is more prone to carrying bacteria and pathogens, says Duvenage.
It has a larger surface area than many vegetables and fruit and its coarser texture offers more space for bacteria to cling to.
Duvenage adds that spinach doesn’t have a compact structure like that of a cabbage, so water can easily penetrate the full leaf. Consumers are more than likely to remove and dispose of the outer layers of cabbage, whereas most of the spinach is consumed.
Unlike ready-to-eat products, there are no set local or international standards for acceptable levels of pathogen presence in fresh produce still to undergo some preparation, explains Duvenage.
Regardless, the concentration of pathogens detected in the study does raise concerns, she adds.
Bacteria can be transferred to the spinach during the handling and storage, be it during the farming or transportation of the product, or at the point of sale.
“Storage in the home is also important, as some people have fridges in which they can safely store their fresh produce, but many others don’t have fridges or electricity.”
The researchers recommend that to improve the safety of spinach, consumers should take care to wash their vegetables with drinking-quality water.
Informal traders need training on the safe handling and storage of fresh produce, they say.
Camilla Schneideman, director of Leiths Cookery School in London, said it was important to bear in mind that no method was absolutely certain to remove all E.coli bacteria (which can cause gastric upsets) from raw food, but there were things you could do to reduce the risk as far as possible.
“Let things soak,” says Schneideman, whose first job in a restaurant was solely to wash salad.
“Submerge it in cold water and leave it there for up to 20 minutes to let the soil particles come loose, then take it out and rinse it again,” she says.