Fact: Few things are less fun than coming down with a stomach bug that leaves you glued to the toilet for what feels like days on end. But for better or for worse, if and when it does inevitably happen, know that you’re not alone: Food poisoning—a foodborne illness that can result in varying degrees of cramping, nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea—is far more common than you likely assume.
According to the CDC, an estimated one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases each year. Though it’s nearly impossible to avoid foodborne illnesses at all costs and most people tend to recover without the need for treatment, we spoke with Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, Ph.D., the professor and director at the Center of Food Safety at the University of Georgia, about some of the most common culprits of food poisoning. Having these in your back pocket, he says, will help you be extra mindful to follow proper food safety precautions when handling these ingredients at home or when dining out. (And as an added bonus, Dr. Diez-Gonzalez also shared some of the foods that are least likely to make you sick with us. Because of peace of mind, am I right?)
7 foods that are most likely to cause food poisoning, according to a food scientist
According to Dr. Diez-Gonzalez, these foods are highly prone to causing foodborne illnesses, meaning they should be approached with a modest amount of caution.
Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they can pick up elements in the water, including bacteria. “Oysters are a food that comes with a high risk for food poisoning—they can transmit not only bacteria but also viruses, especially since they’re often consumed raw,” says Dr. Diez-Gonzalez. The CDC notes that oysters can contain vibrio (an intestinal disease caused by small bacteria) and other harmful germs that can concentrate in their tissues. The best way to effectively kill this odorless and tasteless bacteria is by cooking them thoroughly, like boiling them for three minutes.
2. Rare beef burgers
Beef burgers, made from minced or ground-up beef that’s been processed and at a higher risk for contamination, are more likely to cause food poisoning in comparison to steak. Natalie Alibrandi, a London-based food scientist and CEO of Nali Consulting, says it’s important to always eat meat that’s been thoroughly cooked. “Uncooked meat can contain harmful bacteria, like E.coli, which can cause food poisoning. Eating burgers at minimum medium-well and cooked through will avoid this risk,” Alibrandi says. The USDA recommends cooking ground meat until it reaches an internal temperature of 160°F throughout.
3. Raw fish
Most raw fish used to make foods like sushi are previously frozen to kill parasites and bacteria. However, according to Dr. Diez-Gonzalez, once fish has been handled, they can quickly return. The best way to prevent poisoning from raw fish is by thoroughly cooking or eating it very soon after it’s been prepared. Or, as Alibrandi and Dr. Diez-Gonzalez recommend, cooking the fish will mitigate this risk.
“Sprouts have a very consistent track record for frequent outbreaks,” Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says. This is due, in part, to the fact that sprouts are typically grown in very warm conditions, they have a high moisture content, and they’re typically consumed raw. “Warm temperatures may further accelerate the growth of harmful bacteria and other microorganisms that can make you ill. Bean sprouts have a high risk of contaminants from listeria, salmonella, and E.coli. Therefore, if they are consumed, it is essential for them to be thoroughly cooked to mitigate the risk,” Alibrandi says.
“Sprouts have a very consistent track record for frequent outbreaks,” Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says. This is due, in part, to the fact that sprouts are typically grown in very warm conditions, they have a high moisture content, and they’re typically consumed raw.
5. Prepped salads and leafy greens
“Every year, we see at least one or two notable outbreaks from leafy greens,” Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says. He notes that researchers have found that most greens-related outbreaks tend to occur in the summer months, which indicates that it may be seasonally provoked. “There could be many different explanations, but we don’t really know for sure. One of them could be that the weather allows the survival and the transmission of path pathogens in the environment when it’s warm,” Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says.
“Every year, we see at least one or two notable outbreaks from leafy greens,” Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says. He notes that researchers have found that most greens-related outbreaks tend to occur in the summer months, which indicates that it may be seasonally provoked.
6. Raw milk
Another food that Dr. Diez-Gonzalez suggests might be linked to frequent cases of foodborne illnesses is raw milk. “Raw milk can be contaminated the moment it’s milked from a dairy cow, and it’s really hard to control that type of contamination,” he says. However, a method called pasteurization, which involves heating liquids at high temperatures for short amounts of time to kill harmful microbes, is a highly effective decontamination technique for making this food safe to eat.
7. Some frozen foods
We’ve learned that heating foods to specific temperatures can help remove most pathogenic organisms. However, this doesn’t occur the same way when it comes to cold temperatures. Dr. Diez-Gonzalez, says to keep in mind that freezing food won’t kill most bacteria or viruses. “Freezing food doesn’t kill many of the pathogenic organisms that we deal with. These organisms can remain frozen with the product unless there’s a ‘kill step’ to eliminate pathogens,” he explains. This means that once the food is thawed, the pathogenic organisms can continue to exist and lead to unwanted illnesses.
That said, frozen foods that are properly treated before packaging to eliminate any possible contagions are likely safe to consume.
The foods least likely to cause food poisoning
Several foods do have less of a chance of making you sick, says Dr. Diez-Gonzalez. In general, he recommends foods that have a low risk for contamination or that have been processed to eliminate bacteria. “Canned foods are some of the safest foods that are rarely associated with foodborne disease. This also includes preserved foods like jellies and jams,” he says.
In addition, Dr. Diez-Gonzalez says that pasteurized products—which have been heating treated to kill pathogenic organisms—are usually also a safe bet. Whole fresh produce that you intend to cook also poses little threat. And fresh fruit, like bananas and oranges, that have a protective exterior is A-okay. “I’ve never heard of a case linked to bananas,” he says.
An RD explains whether or not kombucha is actually good for you: