Health Benefits of Apple Cider Vinegar

apples with apple cider vinegar

Whether you throw a tablespoon in your evening tea, put a splash in your water bottle, or mix it with your salad dressing, there are many ways to get your daily apple cider vinegar fix. And, admittedly, the Dirt-to-Dinner team has tried them all! Yes, we are a bit obsessed with apple cider vinegar.

Like many consumers these days, we were curious about the craze— but, we didn’t know much about the science behind it all. And once we got to digging, we had a hard time finding tangible evidence to support consumer beliefs. Is this miracle ingredient actually doing all it claims or is this just another fad?

Bragg’s vinegar contains “the mother,” which claims to help support digestion. image source

Unfortunately, as with many popular ingredients, there is always more research that needs to be done, and many of the reported claims of apple cider vinegar (ACV) cannot be proven conclusively. But, new research does look promising.

What is apple cider vinegar?

Apple cider vinegar is made from apples, obviously, but is either filtered, resulting in a clear product with no residues, or unfiltered, which has a cloudy color. The reason for the cloudiness is that most of the apple and its various enzymes and minerals remain in the vinegar.

The “mother” in raw, unfiltered and unpasteurized apple cider vinegar appears as a web-like substance which are molecules of protein connected in strand-like chains.

The mother is the dark, cloudy substance in the ACV formed from naturally occurring pectin and apple residues – it appears as molecules of protein connected in strand-like chains. The presence of the mother shows that the best part of the apple has not been destroyed. Vinegar containing the mother contain enzymes and minerals that other vinegar may not contain due to over-processing, filtration and overheating. (Braggs

Unfiltered ACV is high in several organic acids – two of which may have specific health benefits: acetic acid and malic acid. Acetic acid may help control digestion, manage mineral absorption, blood pressure and fat deposits. Malic acid, found in many fruits, is known to boost energy levels by converting fats, proteins, and carbohydrates into energy. Although the studies are inconclusive, doses of ¼ to ½ tsp are thought to help chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.

Fruits, in general, have malic acid, but it’s especially abundant in apples. Watermelon is another great source of malic acid. Apricots, bananas, blackberries, cherries, grapes, kiwi, lychees, mango, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, and strawberries are other sources. 

So, what does the research say about the benefits of ACV?

It may keep your sugar levels stable

Apple Cider vinegar may help maintain and stabilize blood glucose levels. You may recall from our Sugar is Sugar is Sugar article that spikes in your blood sugar levels can negatively affect your energy and your digestion. If you are able to maintain stable blood sugar levels, your body can function at a more optimal level.

Carol Johnson, Ph.D., (highlighted on the Braggs website) has studied the effects of apple cider vinegar for over 10 years and believes this ingredient provides an “anti-glycemic effect.” This means it helps maintain a steady blood sugar level. It does this by essentially blocking your body from digesting starch.  Dr. Johnson recommends one to two tablespoons in a cup of water right before you eat your meal – or with your first bite.

image source

“It doesn’t block the starch 100%, but it definitely prevents at least some of that starch from being digested and raising your blood sugar.” -Dr. Carol Johnson PhD

However, the Mayo Clinic indicates that there is very little scientific support for these claims. They recommend a healthy diet and physical activity as the most effective means to lose weight.

ACV can make you feel full

Another one of the more promising studies about vinegar is related to satiety and weight loss. Satiety is the ability for your body to feel full and signal that it does not need to ingest more food. This helps to control your appetite and thus minimizes weight gain. There is new research that demonstrates vinegar’s ability to increase satiety and glycemic control.

In a study performed in Japan, 175 overweight people participated in a three-month study that measured the effectiveness of vinegar on weight loss. The participants were separated into two groups— one was given vinegar before each meal and the other was given water. The study found that the participants who consumed the vinegar lost roughly 2 pounds over the study. Vinegar, in this case, is believed to help the participants feel satiated before those who just drank water. Therefore, the participants in the vinegar control group ate less over the period of the study, which resulted in weight loss. However, once the study was over, those who lost weight immediately gained it back again.

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While this study is not specific to apple cider vinegar, the ability of apple cider vinegar to help manage the digestion of starch and regulate stomach acid production is believed to help weight control.

ACV may help reduce stomach acidity

And that brings us to another very important claim made by ACV— its effect on your body’s stomach acid production. This is quite an interesting one, and it was the one that initially introduced our team to ACV in the first place! After a visit to a gastroenterologist ended with a recommendation to include a teaspoon of ACV in the morning to reduce stomach acidity, we couldn’t help but wonder…why? And although there is no literature that speaks to this premise, there is a very interesting hypothesis regarding apple cider vinegar…

When you are suffering from heartburn, acid reflux, or indigestion,  you may take an antacid (i.e., Tums). The calcium carbonate tablet reacts with the acid that’s in your stomach and raises the pH of your stomach, thus neutralizing it. In theory, this is meant to calm the overly acidic environment and provide pain relief— however, often times your stomach actually responds to this substance by creating more stomach acid in order to bring the pH of your stomach back down to where it is supposed to be (your stomach is naturally fairly acidic).

It is hypothesized that when you add an acidic substance to an already overly acidic environment it could tell your body to stop producing the acid, thus neutralizing the environment.

So, let’s look at this reaction objectively: if you add a base (alkaline) pH to your stomach, your body then tells your stomach to produce more acid.

If we’re to look at the flipside of this bodily reaction, you might conclude: if you add more acid to your stomach maybe your body will tell your stomach to stop making acid.

While the negative effects of antacids have been documented, this hypothesis has not been validated by science. But, if you suffer from these symptoms and apple cider vinegar has been working for you, as it has for us, there is no harm to incorporating this product into your daily routine.

Can it cure cancer? 

Unfortunately, there is very limited research regarding apple cider vinegar and its ability to fight cancer cells. While there was a study that demonstrated the ability for a vinegar-based product to suppress tumor growth in mice, there is no research that indicates drinking ACV will help protect humans from cancer.

Regardless of whether or not the health benefits you experience are fiction or fact, you would not hurt yourself by incorporating vinegar into your diet. Just don’t expect it to offset the effects of pizza and french fries! However, ACV should be diluted in water (recommendations are about 1-2 tablespoons per 8 oz). Straight up ACV can harm your esophagus and the surrounding soft tissues and ruin the enamel on your teeth. It may also negatively interact with any drugs or supplements you take, so check with your doctor first.  Finally, used in excess for years, ACV could possibly cause low potassium and thus low bone density.

Got Milk?

milk canister, milk bottle and glass of milk

There are differences in opinion over the nutritional value of dairy products. Yes, milk is a staple for growing kids, but as adults we often start to assume the need for dairy starts to diminish. While it is true that we do not need as much milk as we did as a child, milk products can still remain an important part of daily nutrition.

Milk is a nutrient dense food

As a “nutrient-rich” food, milk contains many essential macro-nutrients, vitamins and minerals — an especially high amount when considering the rather low calorie content! According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s food pyramid, the average human should consume approximately three servings of dairy per day.

Vitamin D enables your body to absorb calcium and helps maintain your overall body health, while Vitamin A keeps your skin, teeth, and cells healthy. Vitamin E also acts as an antioxidant that helps your body fight free radicals and protect against cell damage. Because of this, Vitamin E it may help reduce the risk of cancer!

Magnesium, Selenium, and Zinc are not to be forgotten either. They support your immune system, hormone activity, and help your cells rebuild.

And in addition to these essential vitamins and minerals, milk is also high in amino acids. Amino acids are the building blocks for all protein. And that’s pretty important given that the average human body is roughly 20% protein.

Amino acids are vital in supporting your muscle and tissue. They also help your immune system and enable the body to heal itself. The amino acids found in milk are supplements that support muscle development and help regulate your central nervous system (CNS). The CNS is responsible for regulating information exchanged between the spinal cord and the brain.

One cup of milk also provides roughly 240 milligrams of calcium per serving. To put this calcium content into perspective, we looked for other foods, like fish and leafy greens, that a nutritionist might recommend helping achieve a daily calcium level. Unfortunately, in comparison to milk, these barely scratch the surface!

The average fish is paltry in comparison with only 20 mg. Greens are a little better.  1 cup of kale contains 101 milligrams of calcium, 1 cup of broccoli contains about 43 milligrams of calcium, and a salmon fillet contains 36 milligrams of calcium. These secondary options all pale in comparison to the amount of calcium in milk. Not to mention, the naturally occurring vitamin D in milk helps your body absorb this calcium more efficiently.

So, if you are not getting your calcium, vitamins, and minerals from dairy you have to be very conscious of what you are substituting milk with in order to fulfill your daily requirements.

Are you getting enough milk?

The USDA recommends three servings of dairy a day, but it can be hard to get a grasp on how that influences your diet. If you break it down, getting three servings of milk a day isn’t as challenging as you may think.

One serving of milk = eight fluid ounces = one cup.

If you order a tall latte from Starbucks, the beverage is 12 ounces. Depending on the milk you include in that latte order, this can account for one of your three servings of dairy! Having a sandwich or salad for lunch? Incorporate some natural cheddar cheese for your third recommended serving.

See—that wasn’t so hard!

And remember, it is important to mix and match your dairy selections as each has its own nutrition, sugar and fat content.

Types of milk and cheese will also have varying nutrition. As a rule of thumb, milk products will have a higher nutritional value, but always check the nutrition labels as they indicate the percent daily values of these nutrients.

So, we know milk is a nutrient dense food…but, let’s take another look at the fatty acids…

Milk began to get a bad reputation when the fat content of foods was put under the microscope. Even today, with our better understanding of the human body and how it processes food, when you are told food is “high in fat” you might immediately think its bad for you! Thus, reaching for the whole milk in the grocery store refrigerator case probably goes against all of your instincts. Well, you are not alone.

Most people believe that fatty acids will increase your cholesterol, increase your risk of heart disease, and increase your blood pressure. And while it is true that a diet high in bad fat can trigger these symptoms— there is such thing as good fat. (For more on that, check out our post Fat: Our New Friend!)

Like the ever-popular omega-3 fatty acid, there are other types of fats that are now being studied for their potential health benefits, some of which are: cancer prevention, antiviral activities, antibacterial functions, delay of tumor growth, and notable anti-plaque agents. To illustrate the point, we’ve all seen the rise in sales for the ever-popular and healthy avocado!

Food “fat content” is determined by fatty acids and can be broken out into two categories: Saturated and Unsaturated. Saturated are generally solid at room temperature – and are thought of as ‘undesired fats’. Because of this, animal protein and dairy products are often thought of as unhealthy because they are higher in saturated fats than unsaturated fats.

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are liquid at room temperature and are found in almonds, avocado canola oil, olive oil, salmon, and tuna. Unsaturated fats break down easier and are not thought to raise one’s cholesterol.  BUT – let’s not count out milk yet. It contains over 400 different fatty acids and they are very diverse in their composition.

The role of saturated fat in milk

As we discussed in Fat: Our New Friend, there is still debate regarding the role of saturated fat in milk. The argument surrounding dairy consumption and the fatty acids found in whole or 2% milk is fueled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recommendation.

Because of the rise in obesity due to sugars and overconsumption, when the USDA recommends that you consume three servings of dairy per day, they are recommending these servings be fat-free or low-fat. However, the current understanding of fatty acids found in milk is being challenged by new scientific research.

In the past, saturated fat was thought to be linked to heart disease and strokes, but it turns out that this may have been a big, fat lie.

A 2010 meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition pooled together data from 21 studies and included almost 350,000 people tracked for an average of 14 years. This study concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke. (Siri-Tarino et al. 2010)

The health benefits of unsaturated fatty acids found in milk are already documented. However, the role of saturated fat is still a complex one

New research indicates that our understanding of saturated fat is not as black and white as we once thought. Remember, not all fats are created equal and your body has a requirement for both unsaturated and saturated fats.

An Explanation of Lactose

The term “lactose intolerance” often gets mislabeled. What that means is that your body cannot properly break down a specific sugar that is found in milk-based products called lactose. That’s right— lactose is actually a sugar found in milk. When you cannot properly digest lactose, that means your small intestine does not produce enough lactase, an enzyme needed to break down the lactose. Essentially, after childhood, when your body is in less need of milk, production of the gene that makes lactase begins to slow down. This gene is what tells your body to continue making the lactase enzyme. When your body begins to produce less of this enzyme, dairy products become increasingly more difficult to digest. Without lactase in your small intestine lactose passes through to the large intestine. The bacteria in the large intestine then ferments the lactose into gas and causes discomfort. However, if you are lactose intolerant, you can buy milk that is lactose-free. You can also check out goat’s milk – just make sure it is pasteurized!

If you choose to follow the USDA’s guidelines regarding milk, be sure to include beneficial, good fatty acids in your diet —by eating cheese, full-fat yogurt, avocado, fatty fish, nuts, and olive oil.

However, if you suffer from high blood pressure or chronic illnesses that are negatively affected by foods with a higher fat content, you should talk to your doctor about your fat intake first!

Is Protein Powder Healthy?

mound of chocolate protein powder

There is very little debate over the importance of protein. Protein is a macronutrient, meaning your body needs it to survive. Not only does it help build and replenish muscle mass, but it also supports your digestive enzymes and hemoglobin levels, enhances muscle fibers, keeps your bones strong, and helps support your immune system.

How much protein do we need?

In our recent post investigating how much protein powder our bodies need every day, we learned that the human body does not need a ton of protein to stay healthy. In most cases, if you are eating a balanced diet, which includes natural protein sources like lean meats, eggs and some dairy products, supplements are not necessary.

But, the protein supplement industry continues to grow, and there are many different products and players that are marketing in this space. The array of products can be quite confusing— especially considering the fact that there is no clear cut standard of regulation for supplements.

The three main sources of protein in supplements

Whey protein is a milk-based protein that contains all nine essential amino acids for the human body. For this reason, whey is a complete protein. There are two types of whey protein that are sold commercially: whey isolate and whey concentrate. Whey isolate is the purest form and contains the highest amount of the protein itself. In this case, it can contain upwards of 90% protein in the product. Whey concentrate, on the other hand, contains roughly 30% – 90% protein and contains more fat than the isolate.

Plant-based protein is a vegan, dairy-free option that derives from various plant and nut protein sources and is dairy. One of the most popular forms of plant-based protein is a combination of pea and rice protein powder. Suppliers will mix these products and add amino acids to the product in order for it to be considered a complete protein.

Soy protein is made by processing de-hulled and defatted soybeans. Soy protein concentrate contains 60-70% protein as beans usually require grains, nuts, and other sources of protein to be a complete protein.

While the D2D team doesn’t recommend taking a protein supplement every single day, we see the benefit to throwing a dash of powder into your morning shake if you are eating meals on-the-go. And you might already have a favorite when shopping for a protein supplement but do you know what ingredients go into this product?

Protein powder product regulations vary between countries

The reality is, you might not be thrilled to find out what is lurking in your powder. The problem with a lot of the brands on the market today is the ingredients come from all over the world. And while that is not always a bad thing, it does mean that they could be subjected to different regulation.

For example, some products can say “Made in the USA” because that is where the protein powder is mixed and created for production, but specific ingredients are often sourced from other countries that may or may not have the same production standards for supplement products. If you tend to purchase organic products, you might be surprised to learn that a label can say “organic,” but it doesn’t mean it was grown in the United States on our organic soil. It may have been grown in China or another foreign country and still have the organic label.

Unfortunately, if the ingredients are coming from China (and a lot of times they are) they can contain heavy metals from the soil or water supply they were grown in. One Chinese government study found 90% of the groundwater in China was polluted. Additionally, a USDA report on organic products from China stated, “China does not recognize foreign organic standards, and currently no organic product equivalency agreement exists between China and the United States.”

There may also be little consistency to sourcing as much of this depends on pricing and availability. Given this potential inconsistency, we wanted to see how hard it was to get our hands on this important manufacturer information. So…we took a little field trip!

D2D Supplement Testing:

The D2D team took a trip to a national protein supplement provider and purchased the top-selling vegan, soy, and whey protein powder. We reviewed the ingredients for each and contacted the product manufacturer to fill in any missing pieces of information. (And let us first tell you, all three companies were very accommodating, but if you did not have the education or knowledge as to what questions to ask, the answers were not easily provided.)

The manufacturer of vegan protein responded the following: “Over 65% of the ingredients [product name] are grown and processed in North America, Europe Union, and Japan. We choose to source some ingredients from their native climate including organic gelatinized maca root (Peru), sacha inchi protein (Peru), and chlorella (Japan).”

The manufacturer of soy protein informed us that the soybeans used are grown in “eastern Asia,” however a specific location could not be confirmed— although it is believed to be China.

And lastly, the whey protein manufacturer confirmed, “the milk used in Whey is from the United States and the MBP (milk basic protein) is from Japan.”

After receiving these responses, we consulted with Victoria Zupa, ND, a licensed Naturopathic Physician who confirmed that the information provided was particularly vague and we were right to be concerned!

So, in addition to finding the country of origin of these product ingredients, we were motivated to go one step further. We sent the three sources to a third-party lab and had a basic heavy metal panel performed on the three samples. The results are included below.

 This metal analysis was performed by an independent lab and only reflects a small piece of a very complex product and are not representative of protein supplements as a whole.  In order to conclusively state the number of metals in protein powders, larger, more complex, and peer-reviewed studies would need to take place. 

For both the vegan and soy proteins, various metals were detected in the lab analysis, with the barium content being particularly high. Barium is a silvery-white metal found in nature. It can act as a muscle stimulant and in high doses, barium can cause anxiety, tremors, and even muscle weakness. Barium contamination often comes from the original water source used in production. According to the World Health Organization, “Most foods contain less than 0.002 mg of barium per gram (Gormican, 1970). Some cereal products and nuts may contain high levels: e.g., bran flakes, 0.0039 mg/g; pecans, 0.0067 mg/g; and Brazil nuts, up to 4 mg/g (Mertz, 1986)” (WHO: Barium in Drinking Water).  Additionally, the EPA “allows 2 parts of barium per million parts of drinking water (2ppm).”


Arsenic: EPA set 10 ppb as the allowable level for arsenic in drinking water

Cadmium: FDA set maximum limit of cadmium in bottled water as 0.005ppm

Lead: EPA set allowable level for lead in drinking water as 0.015ppm

Mercury: EPA set allowable level for mercury in drinking water as .002ppm

By the WHO standards, .0039 mg/g is a relatively high level of barium. So, in the soy protein lab results included above, 2.27 parts per million (roughly 0.00227 mg/g) which is higher than desired. And according to the EPA standards for drinking water, the barium content of these powders is above the acceptable limit. The vegan protein also tested even higher, with 16.3 ppm (or 0.0163 mg/g).

It is true your body knows how to process and eliminate toxic substances in small amounts. Trace amounts of leadbariummercuryarsenic, and other metals do end up in our food. As acknowledged by the WHO, most foods contain trace levels of barium! While 2.27ppm of barium seems relatively small, if you are taking protein supplements every day, these substances can build up in your system. (For more on these metals and the trace or toxic levels that can be found in your food, please visit the World Health Organization.)

Best to get your protein from a delicious egg omelet or a juicy piece of chicken!

So, there is more to these products (and their branding) than what meets the eye. If you still want to continue to incorporate protein supplements into your diet, consider is the country of origin before ringing out at the cash register. We have learned that Europe has tighter regulations than other parts of the world.

ImmunoPro and Vital Nutrients are two whey proteins that a nutritionist recommended to us. However, as with anything, it is important to consume these sources in moderation. This will depend on your activity level, body weight, and overall nutrition. As a rule of thumb, you should only use supplements 2-3x a week.

Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

farmers market sign in front of vegetables

Who doesn’t enjoy visiting a farmers’ market and buying recently harvested fruits, veggies, jams, honey, and meats from local farms? Many times you can shake the farmer’s hand, ask questions about how they grow their food, and discuss what crops to expect this summer. This sentiment is enjoyed by many and as a result, U.S. farmers’ markets have become increasingly popular.

The growing popularity of U.S. farmers’ markets

As we wrote in our previous post, “Going…going…local”, more and more Americans are seeking out locally sourced food. In fact, since 1994, there has been a 394% increase in U.S. farmers markets with a total of over 8,675 markets registered as of September 2016.

Consumers love these seasonal markets – and so do our farmers. By selling at farmers’ markets, farmers can get a better profit margin on their goods as they bypass their traditional vendor (like your local grocery store who takes a cut of their profits) to sell their freshly harvested produce and other products directly to consumers. An additional benefit of these direct-to-consumer venues is when consumers gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, and farmers can meet the people that are purchasing and enjoying the fruits of their labor.

But what about food safety? As consumers, how do you know that these farmers have followed best food safety practices in the growing, harvesting, and processing of their harvests?

It is safe to say that no farmer will deliberately grow and harvest food he/she knows is contaminated with human pathogens (i.e., microorganisms that can make people sick). However, some farmers are more aware than others of the risk factors from water, soil, humans, wildlife, domestic animals, etc., that could contaminate produce crops.

You can read more about in-field food safety programs in our previous blog post, “How Safe Is Our Food?”

Is it possible to buy locally AND buy safely?

The consumer perception is that because it is local – it is safer. When researchers ask farmers’ market shoppers about food safety, they often report that many consumers believe food sold at the market is safe.

The most frequent response for shoppers surveyed at Washington farmers’ market was a desire to support local farmers (35%). Researchers at the University of Arkansas asked 305 shoppers at three Arkansas farmers’ markets their reasons for shopping at the market: 36% said they shopped at the market primarily because they were concerned about chemicals in their food while only 2-6% were concerned about microbial contamination. Additionally, when asked to compare the safety of organic to conventionally grown products, the vast majority of the respondents (76%) said they believed organic foods are safer than conventionally produced foods.

In a larger consumer survey produced by Deloitte in 2013, shoppers cited the commitment to safety and locally-sourced products ranked first and third (69% and 48%, respectively) as reasons for shopping at a particular local market.

This made us wonder if farmers’ markets can deliver on both the expectation of safe products and locally-sourced foods.

How safe is the product you just bought from the local farmers’ market?

The primary food safety concerns are foodborne pathogenic bacteria, such as ListeriaSalmonella, pathogenic E. coli as well as Norovirus that, at the least, cause gastrointestinal symptoms but, in some cases, can also cause other more serious health effects.

A farmer’s level of food safety awareness certainly affects the steps he/she takes to prevent contamination from occurring i.e., implementing food safety practices and procedures to reduce the contamination risk. In some cases, such as with wildlife or birds moving through or over a field, it is impossible to prevent potential contamination sources from contacting crops. So, in this case, farmers monitor these potential sources to minimize the possibility of pathogens being transferred to their crops. For example, one method they may use is to look for feces on produce or the surrounding soil during harvest and not harvest crops that are within a specified radius of the fecal material.

In researching this topic, we found several studies that tested specific produce from both farmers’ markets and grocery stores for bacteria that can serve as indicators of pathogens that could cause illness. The study results indicated that produce from farmers’ markets typically had significantly more bacterial counts in general than produce from grocery stores, but this is not necessarily bad since many bacteria are not harmful to humans and may even be beneficial for maintaining product quality and human health when consumed.

Do federal food safety regulations apply to locally grown products sold directly to consumers?

It depends, but most farmers selling their products at farmers’ markets qualify for some exemptions to the level of food safety regulations practiced by larger producers.

According to the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) passed by U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Obama in 2011, food safety requirements depend on a farm’s income.

  1. Farming operations with less than $25,000 in food sales are completely exempt from food safety rules.
  2. Farms that gross between $25,000 and $500,000 annually and sell most of their food products (greater than 50%) directly to consumers, restaurants, or stores in their state or within 275 miles of their farm are exempt from the more rigorous and costly FSMA requirements (i.e., detailed record-keeping and technical reporting requirements).
  3. Farms grossing more than $500,000 annually to follow all applicable regulations and to undergo food safety inspections.

The bulk of farmers who sell their products at farmers’ markets qualify for one of these exemptions. FSMA requires farms grossing more than $500,000 annually to follow all applicable regulations and to undergo food safety inspections.

What do experts say about food safety and small producers?

Industry leaders have weighed in…

At the end of the day, we want our food to be safe regardless of where it comes from. However, there seem to be differences of opinion on whether small producers need to follow the same rules as large producers.

“There is no scientific evidence to support reduced requirements or exemptions for small farms due to lower food safety risks.”  — David Plunkett, Center for Science in Public Interest.

“Scientific evidence is not conclusive either way regarding the safety of local food. We don’t really know if larger operations are safer than smaller operations. Right now we can’t say farmers markets are riskier or safer.” — Dr. Francisco Diez-Gonzales, University of Minnesota

“Small scale growers can be sued for producing and selling food that makes people sick.” — Bill Marler, Food safety attorney

“Collectively, this data indicates small farms would be spending about 60% of their profits complying with the new FSMA rules if they were not exempt.”  — National Farmers Market Coalition

Those in favor of small farm exemptions and reduced requirements emphasize the cost of complying with FSMA’s rules, as it could put many small farms out of business. However, both sides agree that food safety at the small farm level needs to be a priority for the health and safety of our communities throughout the United States.

Critics of reduced requirements and exemptions warn small farmers and consumers: pathogens do not discriminate between small and large farms and local does not mean microbiologically safer.

Farmer’s markets make their own policies

State and local governments oversee farmers’ markets. For the most part,  research indicates that states rely on county health departments to regulate food safety at farmers’ markets and the health departments rely on market managers to enforce food safety practices at the market. Many state and local governments do not have adequate staffing to visit each local farmers’ market leaving food safety rule development and enforcement to the market manager.

In her job as liaison between the King County/Seattle (WA) Public Health Department and farmers’ markets, Jill Trohimovich, an environmental health specialist, told Food Safety News her department does “a quick walk-by” when inspecting farmers’ markets. Public health officials from other states have made similar statements about their inspections of farmers’ markets. Dave Stockdale, a past executive director of the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, describes market managers as having “a general understanding” of agriculture and food safety guidelines, but no specific training.

Stacy Miller, a former executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, explained how the process of vetting potential farmers’ market vendors differs from one market to the next. One market may require potential vendors to fill out an application, present proof of insurance, and have an onsite inspection while others may only require proof of insurance.

An example of a more rigorous set of requirements is the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco, California. Due to limited space and enormous popularity with shoppers, this San Franciscan market requires farmers who want to sell their products to complete a 17-page application and pass an on-farm food safety and sustainability inspection by market managers.

On the contrary, vendors who wish to join the Phoenix (AZ) Public Market run by Community Food Connections, complete a one-page application before being allowed to sell their products. Cindy Gentry, the Community Food Connections’ founder and former executive, said that someone from the organization tries to visit each farm, but sometimes that does not happen until after the farmers have already started selling their products at the market.

Have there ever been foodborne illness outbreaks linked to food sold at farmers’ markets?

Since 2008, there have been seven major foodborne illness outbreaks and two recalls associated with food products from farmers’ markets causing 80 known reported illnesses and one death. Additionally, while some foodborne illnesses have been reported from farmer’s markets, it is hard to discern all of them. Hospitals, doctors, and the CDC share as much information as they can, but consumers often do not report a sickness— and when they do it can easily be mistaken for a “stomach bug.”

What are farmers’ markets doing to improve food safety?

Small farmers realize that food safety is crucial for business and protecting consumers. Amy Annable, manager of sprout operations at Edrich Farms in Randallstown, MD, knows that if anyone gets sick from her sprouts it would ruin her livelihood. A foodborne illness outbreak is her “worst nightmare”—sprouts are known for being susceptible to microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses.

So, Edrich Farms established its own food safety plan, and Amy spends extra time during the week on paperwork and testing to ensure their sprouts are safe. Many other small farmers are also starting their own food safety programs and implementing practices to keep produce safe.

Many food safety specialists in the USDA’s cooperative extension system work closely with their state’s farmers’ markets to provide food safety information to their market vendors. These programs provide workshops and online materials for both farmers and market managers.

How to be a proactive food safety shopper at your local farmers’ market

When shopping at your local farmers’ market, it is valuable to proactively ask the right questions and follow certain practices to reduce your risk of getting sick from foodborne pathogens. One researcher who investigated the correlation between foodborne illness and farmers’ markets suggested that the data may indicate that people “erroneously believe that food bought at farmers’ markets needn’t be washed because it is ‘natural’.” It is always a good idea to follow certain food safety practice when preparing and consuming food in your home. Here are some recommendations provided by and Eat Right, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

References for farmers’ market microbial surveys

Bohaychuk VM, Bradbury RW, Dimock R, Fehr M, Gensler GE, King RK, Rieve R, Romero Barrios P. 2009.A microbiological survey of selected Alberta-grown fresh produce from farmers’ markets in Alberta, Canada. Journal of Food Protection, 72(2):415-20.

Levy DJ, Beck NK, Kossik AL, Patti T, Meschke JS, Calicchia M, Hellberg RS. 2015. Microbial safety and quality of fresh herbs from Los Angeles, Orange County and Seattle farmers’ markets. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 95(13):2641-5.

Park CE, Sanders GW. 1992. Occurrence of thermotolerant campylobacters in fresh vegetables sold at farmers’ outdoor markets and supermarkets. Canadian Journal of Microbiology, 38(4):313-6.

Scheinberg JA, Dudley EG, Campbell J, Roberts B, DiMarzio M, DebRoy C, Cutter CN. 2017. Prevalence and phylogenetic characterization of Escherichia coli and hygiene indicator bacteria isolated from leafy green produce, beef, and pork obtained from farmers’ markets in Pennsylvania. Journal of Food Protection, 80(2):237-244.

Sirsat SA, Neal JA. 2013. Microbial profile of soil-free versus in-soil grown lettuce and intervention methodologies to combat pathogen surrogates and spoilage microorganisms on lettuce. Foods, 2(4):488-498.

Soendjojo E. 2012. Is local produce safe? Journal of Purdue Undergraduate Research, 2:55-62.

Su Y, Hsu W, Simonee A, Huang T. 2014. Prevalence of SalmonellaEscherichia coli O157:H7 and Shigella in selected fresh produce from supermarkets, local markets and farmers’ markets.

Wood JL, Chen JC, Friesen E, Delaquis P, Allen KJ. 2015. Microbiological survey of locally grown lettuce sold at farmers’ markets in Vancouver, British Columbia. Journal of Food Protection, 78(1):203-8.