Dr. Mercola Articles
Just Dump Your Smelly Sponge
Sat, 19 Aug 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

What common household item has around 362 different species of bacteria residing inside it? You’ve probably already guessed from the title it’s your average, everyday kitchen sponge, but did you know killing those little critters takes more than a few minutes in a microwave, as per some of the latest “kitchen hacks” advice?

It seems that nuking (microwaving) used sponges does kill some of the bacteria, but not the worst ones, according to a study published in Scientific Reports and titled “Microbiome analysis and confocal microscopy of used kitchen sponges reveal massive colonization.”1 The study explains something previous research has missed; namely, that a used kitchen sponge generally carries not just a lot of germs, but a lot of different species of germs. As The New York Times asserts:

“It may nuke the weak ones, but the strongest, smelliest and potentially pathogenic bacteria will survive. Then, they will reproduce and occupy the vacant real estate of the dead. And your sponge will just be stinkier and nastier and you may come to regret having not just tossed it.”2

There are bacteria, then there are pathogens, which Science Daily describes as “a biological agent that causes disease or illness.”3

Kitchen Sponge Microbiome: Yikes

In the study, a research team led by Markus Egert, a microbiologist at the University of Furtwangen in Germany, examined the DNA and RNA in samples from 14 used sponges and found 362 bacteria species. Besides the surprise of that, the researchers were flummoxed by the density of all those microbes jammed into such a tiny space. In total, about 82 billion bacteria inhabited a single cubic inch of sponge.

The scientists used a few different tools to detect the different bacteria types, including fluorescence and laser microscopy. Not all the sponges were old or loaded with food particles, and some had been “cleaned.”

With what we know about bacteria, it’s no surprise that they love hanging out in used sponges, what with all the raw chicken juice, seafood and other random food bits, not to mention whatever germs might be on food packaging handled by people who haven’t washed their hands. Such cross-contamination is a leading cause of foodborne disease.

And people often use sponges to wipe down the kitchen sink, refrigerators, cutting boards, can openers, garbage pails and countertops, the last of which is the recipient of everything from grocery bags to kids’ toys to your cellphone. These items may have come into previous contact with your bathroom sink, the floor of your car and your neighbor kid’s mouth.

Part of the problem with sponges in particular is that they’re generally held under a faucet of warm to hot running water, which simply jump-starts additional bacteria, as the moisture and warmth creates the perfect living environment for them. One of the worst is a particularly prolific microbe called Moraxella osloensis, which lives on human skin and can cause infections in people with weak immune systems.

That nasty dirty-laundry smell is often caused by these bacteria, as is the mildew-meets-microbe odor you may smell the moment you walk toward your kitchen sink. Other dirty-sponge bacteria generally include E. coli, campylobacter (which is the main cause of many types of diarrhea), Enterobacter cloacae, Klebsiella (which can cause pneumonia), Proteus (a common cause of urinary tract infections), salmonella and staphylococcus, Fox 8 Cleveland4 reports.

Your Kitchen Sponge Contains More Germs Than Your Toilet

As it turned out, the 14 sponges the scientists used in their research ended up containing more bacteria than your average toilet. In fact, a Forbes article asks, “Do you wash your dishes in the toilet?” Of course, not all toilets are the same, just as not all sponges are the same.

It has everything to do with how long they’ve been used, and by whom and for what. But here’s the kicker: Egert equated the number of bacteria with that of human stool samples and commented, “There are probably no other places on earth with such high bacterial densities.”5

Back to equating your kitchen sponge’s dirty innards with that of your toilet’s, it may seem a little harsh since you don’t (presumably) actually poop in your kitchen sink. Further studies show that many people don’t wash their hands correctly, or as often as they think they do. In addition, your kitchen, being the hub of the house, is the room most frequented by friends and family, and along with them, their germs.

Thrift: It Only Works When It Does

There’s an old saying: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” That’s true much of the time, but it doesn’t make sense to keep nuking your sponges if it’s not killing potentially illness-causing bacteria. People who take their thrifty nature seriously often do what they can to save money, so they pride themselves on such steps as washing out their sponge and placing it in the microwave on high for a few minutes, believing it will disinfect it.

You may also do this is you’re environmentally conscious and looking to avoid or reduce waste. However, while the sponge may smell a little better, that doesn’t mean it’s done the job, the scientists add.

“The odor is a compound produced by the bacterium’s metabolism. It eats fat. It excretes fat. And that fatty excrement stinks … Disinfecting it, as many have tried, does not necessarily work.

You can microwave a sponge, throw it in the laundry or dishwasher, douse it in vinegar or other cleansing solutions or even cook it in a pot. But the researchers discovered more of the potentially pathogenic bacteria, like Moraxella osloensis, on the sponges collected from people who said they routinely disinfected them.”6

To reiterate, the problem is that the bacteria actually gets worse when the sponge is microwaved. If it can’t be cleaned completely, it’s best to bite the bullet and get a new sponge, especially, Egert says, “if it starts to move.”7

If you just can’t see pitching a sponge that seems, from appearances, to be perfectly fine, you might run it through a laundry cycle at the hottest setting with a natural powder detergent and bleach — in a load of white items, perhaps — then use it somewhere it will be less crucial for it to be pathogen free, such as the bathroom.

Microwaves Don’t Work the Way Some People Think They Do

Microwaves also don’t kill bacteria in food as many people think they do. The German study revealed that it’s great to have a cleaning routine, but as comfortable as you may be with it, the fact is most people aren’t cleaning their sponges as thoroughly as they think they are. In the microwave, they might not be sanitizing their sponges long enough or hot enough.

Here’s why: Microwaving or boiling it will wipe out a significant number of the bacteria, but those said to be cleaned regularly did not have any fewer bacteria than the ones that hadn’t been cleaned at all. It’s like the old saying that you can’t read a book by its cover, aka, just because something doesn’t look dirty (read: loaded with harmful, disease-causing and along with arguably some benign microorganisms, as well) doesn’t mean it isn’t.

Another study describes a community picnic in Juneau, Alaska, after which dozens of people took home leftover roast pork (which had been prepared and flown in from a Seattle restaurant) and reheated it. Of the 43 people who ate the leftover pork, 21 of them — 49 percent — got sick with salmonella poisoning. According to the study:

“Of the 30 persons who ate reheated meat, all 10 who used a microwave oven became ill, compared with none of 20 who used a conventional oven or skillet … Compared with conventional methods of reheating, microwave ovens had no protective effect in preventing illness. To prevent outbreaks such as this one, care must be taken to assure that food is both properly cooked and handled and properly reheated.”8

It should be noted that the restaurant that prepared the roast pork thawed two frozen pigs for several hours at room temperature, then cooked them in a gas-fired flame broiler. One of the pigs was left unrefrigerated for anywhere from 17 to 20 hours after being cooked.

Microwave Your Underwear — What?

Whether or not you’re aware, there’s a school of thought that microwaving your underwear will get rid of bacteria better than detergent and do it without exposing you to toxic agents from many of the products on the market. Is this a good idea?

Some believe the yeast that may be lingering in undergarments need to be zapped in the microwave to be sure the microorganisms are truly and sincerely dead, but honestly is it a good idea? To get rid of potentially bacteria-ridden underwear, microwaves aren’t a good way to do it for a plethora of reasons:

  • Synthetic material in underwear could melt or even catch on fire
  • Early microwave models can leak radiation


  • A better way is to wash your undergarments separately, then tumble dry for a minimum of 30 minutes
  • Add 2 cups of 10 particles per million (ppm) of colloidal silver, an antibacterial, to the rinse cycle
  • Keep your washer clean by routinely doing an empty “load” using hot water and one-half cup of white vinegar and one-half cup of baking soda

Recommended Steps Regarding Used Sponges

The first thing Forbes recommends is that you wash your hands well before, during and often while busy in the kitchen doing things like flipping through your cookbook, using your phone, peeling carrots and putting dishes in the dishwasher. That’s usually how it goes in a busy kitchen.

You’re not required to pitch the sponge you just got out yesterday (necessarily), but once a week might be good. Only you know how much you use it, and what you’ve used it for. If you used it to wipe the baby’s mouth, soaked up milk spilled from the floor and cleaned the sink drain with it, you probably have some cleaning to do. Forbes9 offers three ways to sanitize your sponges, which, as mentioned, may have varying results:

  • Boiling them
  • Microwaving
  • Soaking them in bleach — 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of bleach per quart of warm — not hot — water for at least one minute

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) microwaving sponges kills 99.99999 percent of the bacteria present on them, while dishwashing kills 99.9998 percent.10 If using your microwave, Michigan State University11 advises:

  • Make sure the sponge is completely wet because otherwise it could catch fire in the microwave (or worse, explode).
  • Place the wet sponge in the microwave on high for one minute, which is sufficient to kill bacteria.
  • Be careful when removing the sponge as it will be hot. You may want to set a timer for 10 to15 minutes to give it a chance to cool before removing.

You may be interested in knowing that getting rid of bacteria in sponges appears to work best in a lab environment and not so well in actual kitchens, Fox 8 Cleveland12 says, maybe because they’re getting a wide range of uses that some might raise their eyebrows at (but then, everybody’s germ tolerance is different).

However, in light of the aforementioned information, you may want to use other methods. The dishwasher is another idea. Needless to say, sponges with metallic scrub pads shouldn’t be disinfected or sanitized in the microwave, so the dishwasher method works: First, use the hottest and longest cycle on your dishwasher, then use the dry cycle.

If you ‘re just not sure, even if it appears to be OK (but especially if it doesn’t) dumping your sponge into the nearest garbage pail once a week or so and starting with a new one is your best bet (although one microbiologist advised once a month13). Not only will you be assured you’re not spreading germs all over your kitchen and to the visitors therein, it’s just a good habit to get into. Next, you probably want to take a look at your dishcloths.

Declare a War on Waste!
Sat, 19 Aug 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

The second installment of a documentary TV series "Hugh's War on Waste" highlights one man's attempt to spearhead radical change throughout the U.K. related to food and clothing waste. Host of the BBC One show launched in 2015, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, an English celebrity chef, broadcaster, writer and environmental activist, suggests that farmers, retailers and consumers all contribute to the tons of waste occurring across the U.K. every day.

Fearnley-Whittingstall asserts Britons throw away about one-third of all the food produced within its borders. Moreover, 20 percent of the crops grown in the U.K. never get eaten because quality standards in supermarkets call for the wholesale rejection of fruits and vegetables that are not "absolutely perfect" in terms of size, shape and appearance.

Because "Hugh's War on Waste" has stirred a global "Waste Not" movement, I invite you to take this opportunity to consider how you can be a more conscious consumer. If you routinely throw away half-eaten meals and perfectly useable clothing, or frequently toss food because it spoils before you made a plan to eat it, this documentary is for you!

Grocers Discard Massive Amounts of Edible Food

Fearnley-Whittingstall points out that Britons purchase more than 40 million tons of food annually, which, for the most part, is channeled through seven supermarkets, including the five largest (based on sales volume): Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose (which is owned by John Lewis).1 His "War on Waste" campaign targets these big retailers, most of whom claim on their websites that food waste is not an issue.

In fact, Sainsbury's and Tesco claimed they were doing everything they could to ensure food that was still suitable for human consumption was getting to people in need. However, after going "dumpster diving" at two prominent retailers, Fearnley-Whittingstall was shocked to discover just how much edible food was, in reality, being liberally tossed out by grocery stores. About the late-night discovery of massive food waste at one Waitrose store, he said:

"This branch of Waitrose has binned hundreds of pounds worth of perfectly good food tonight, but that's not something they'll be admitting to their customers. Here's what it says on the Waitrose website: 'Surplus food that is fit for consumption is donated to local charities.'

That's the front-facing message Waitrose is putting out to all their customers about their food-waste policy, and I think it's flawed… Either they are deliberately misleading their customers or Waitrose doesn't know what's happening in their stores."

Waste Less, Save More

Armed with the video footage, Fearnley-Whittingstall arranged a meeting with Quentin Clark, head of sustainability at Waitrose. Prior to seeing the video evidence, Clark claimed Waitrose follows a three-step process for handling edible food it deems to be no longer sellable:

  1. Promote the item to customers at a reduced price
  2. Offer the item to employees at a further-reduced price
  3. Donate the item to local charitable organizations within the local community

When Clark was shown highlights of the dumpster-diving excursion, he seemed genuinely surprised at the amount of edible food that had been tossed at the Waitrose store in Old Sodbury. Responding on camera, he stated, "Our commitment is that we don't want any food fit for human consumption to be disposed of."

After further discussion, Clark agreed Waitrose had work to do to refresh its corporate policy on the handling of food waste. He added, "We are not intending to deliberately deceive … because we don't want food that should be eaten to not be eaten."

In 2016, supermarket giant Sainsbury launched its "Waste Less, Save More" program, a five-year plan aimed at helping customers save money by reducing waste. The initial plan was to get customers to reduce waste by 50 percent. Alas, by the end of the first year, it became clear this goal would not be met, and the supermarket chain ended up scaling back its expectations.2 Turns out behavior is more difficult to change than expected.

Introducing Waste-Not, Want-Not Cafes and Food-Waste Warehouses

Even before the production of the documentary, resourceful people were recovering wasted food from the garbage bins of local grocery stores and repurposing it. Among them were Catie Jarman and Sam Joseph, owners of a Bristol pop-up café called Skipchen — a name combining "skip," which is the British word for a large-topped waste container and "chen," from the word "kitchen."

At the time of filming, Skipchen had been serving reclaimed food to its customers for months using a "pay-as-you-feel" business model. To get a firsthand look at the waste, Fearnley-Whittingstall accompanied Jarman and Joseph on one of their late-night visits to Tesco and Waitrose stores. As usual, they plundered skips that were chockfull of bottled drinks, bread, candy, fruit, meat, vegetables and other edible fare.

Jarman and Joseph estimate they have fed some 25,000 people during the past seven years with the bread, meat, produce and other items they have reclaimed on their middle-of-the-night scavenging rounds. At the time of filming, Skipchen, which is affiliated with the Real Junk Food Project, was one of about 10 "waste-not, want-not" cafes scattered across the U.K.

These food-waste restaurants offer quality meals at prices determined by the customer, based on what he or she can afford.3 According to The Independent, the U.K.'s first food-waste supermarket opened last year in Pudsey, near Leeds — another brainchild of the Real Junk Food Project:4

"Food-waste campaigners from the Real Junk Food Project have opened 'the warehouse' … Customers are invited to shop for food thrown out by supermarkets and other businesses. The food is priced on a 'pay as you feel' basis, and has already helped desperate families struggling to feed their children."

Adam Smith, founder of the Real Junk Food Project, hopes to open similar warehouses in cities across the U.K. "Every city will now obtain central storage and run a 'people's supermarket,' as well as Fuel for School," he said. Fuel for School is a project that delivers surplus bread, dairy products, fruit and vegetables from local supermarkets to schools, where it helps to feed some 12,000 students each week.5

Charitable Organizations Step in to Redistribute Excess Food

Continuing his investigation into retail food waste, Fearnley-Whittingstall interviewed Lindsay Boswell, chief executive officer of FareShare, a charity that has as its mission to redirect food waste to community groups that provide meals to people in need. Boswell suggested large retailers prefer oversupply to undersupply as a strategy for keeping customers happy.

He said: "The biggest crime in the food industry is to not be able to meet demand, and that starts when you and I walk into a supermarket. If the shelf is bare, we'll go to their rival." As a result, most stores purchase excessive amounts of food that often goes to waste before it can be sold. Stated Fearnley-Whittingstall, "As long as overproduction is the cornerstone of the supermarket business model, there will always be perfectly good food going to waste."

In 2016, FareShare rescued 13.5 tons of wasted food while supporting more than 6,700 charities, which combined serve an estimated 28.6 million meals to people in need.6

A report7 issued by the Waste & Resources Action Program (WRAP), a U.K. charity focused on waste reduction and sustainability, indicated nearly 2 million tons of food is wasted in the nation's grocery supply chain annually. In 2015, only 47,000 tons of the 270,000 tons of potentially available, edible food waste was passed on to organizations that redistributed it.

Boswell believes the WRAP figure is understated, suggesting, "as much as 400,000 tons of good, in-date surplus food could be redistributed to feed people each year."8 He says his goal is to increase the amount of wasted food FareShare saves from just 2 percent to 25 percent. Clearly, there is more work to do.

The Quest for Aesthetically-Pleasing Fruits and Vegetables

Fearnley-Whittingstall visited a family farm in Norfolk where 20 tons of parsnips had been deemed unsellable for purely cosmetic reasons. The family had been supplying parsnips to Morrisons since the 1980s, but was forced out of business due to, in their opinion, unreasonable demands placed on them by the corporation. Fearnley-Whittingstall commented:

"The idea a parsnip should be selected under some kind of beauty-contest rules is absurd. Often you are talking about a size variation of a couple of millimeters, and this is the sole basis on which edible produce is being rejected."

In support of their strict cosmetic standards, supermarket chains around the globe have long claimed consumers won't buy unshapely produce. In the movie, two corporate executives from Morrisons, which has nearly 500 stores across the U.K., balked at the idea of displaying less-than-perfect produce. One executive stated:

"The thing is, customers look at a product that is scarred or oddly shaped and think, 'I don't want to buy that product.' The worst thing would be to move the problem with unsightly produce that exists on the farm into our supermarkets."

The Crooked Veggie Campaign

After the documentary aired, Asda, the U.K.'s third-largest grocery-store chain, launched a variety of "wonky (crooked) vegetables" under the label of "Beautiful on the Inside." Waitrose also experimented with selling imperfect produce, including knobby tomatoes that, in the past, would not have been deemed acceptable.

Fearnley-Whittingstall, who has little fondness for what he dubs "the industrial food machine," declares he is tired of powerful manufacturers and retailers dictating the nation's food standards. He told Saga Magazine:9

"Grow a carrot that doesn't look sufficiently carroty — one that might have a minuscule deviation from the approved elongated orange triangle — and it will never see a supermarket shelf. Pluck a tomato you couldn't mistake for a billiard ball, and the chances are you will be stuck with it."

Tristram Stuart, an expert on the environmental and social impacts of food waste, who has been investigating the hidden world of supermarket waste for years and was interviewed by Fearnley-Whittingstall for the film, said:

"Every farmer I speak to is resentful of the waste they experience. They grow the food throughout the year, and then they see it rot in their fields when orders and standards change unexpectedly. But they can't do anything about it because, if they complain against the supermarkets, they risk losing their business."

10 Ways to Reduce Food Waste

According to Fearnley-Whittingstall, "On average, U.K. families throw away a shocking £700 ($912) of perfectly good food every year — often because they've simply bought too much in the first place." The most-wasted fresh foods, he states, are bread, fruit, milk, potatoes and salad.10 The Mirror suggests 24 million slices of bread, 1.5 million sausages and 1.1 million eggs are being dumped every day.11

Besides being mindful while you are shopping, below are 10 tips you can apply to your life today to help you reduce food waste. Several of these tips were actively promoted in the documentary.

Shop wisely 

Plan meals, use lists and avoid impulse purchases. Says Fearnley-Whittingstall, "It's hard to beat the discipline of a good old-fashioned shopping list: Plan ahead and then stick with the program."12

Buy local

Locally produced foods are fresher, can be kept longer and leave a smaller ecological footprint.

Buy imperfect fruits and vegetables

Rather than searching for the perfect specimens, don't be afraid to buy fruits and vegetables containing blemishes or bruises.

Get educated about dates

Use-by and best-by dates are manufacturer suggestions and may not necessarily correlate to the item being unsafe for consumption. In fact, many foods are safe and consumable well after their use-by date. Apply common sense, and use your eyes and nose to assess if something is safe to eat. Check out some tips on handling moldy food items.

Freeze food

Instead of letting food spoil, freeze it before it has a chance to go bad. Freezing overripe fruit, for example, is the first step in transforming it into juice pops or homemade sorbet.

Store fresh food properly

Retain fresh fruits and vegetables in their original packaging and avoid washing them until you are ready to eat them. Also, to prevent oxygen from accelerating decay, press or squeeze excess air out of the bag before securing it with a twist tie or zipper-type seal.

Consider juicing

Juicing is an excellent way to finish up aging produce while improving your health and managing your weight at the same time.

Choose smaller portions

When you prepare larger meals at home, be sure to have a plan for eating or freezing the leftovers. At restaurants, ask about half-portions, which are often available upon request and sometimes even at a reduced price.

Eat your leftovers

Change your mindset about eating leftovers at home, and order only what you can reasonably eat at restaurants, particularly if your usual habit is to bring leftovers home but not eat them. About cooking with leftovers, Fearnley-Whittingstall said, "[It] isn't just about making do — in my experience, meals made from bits and pieces ferreted from the fridge are often the most satisfying and delicious of all."13

Compost food scraps

Composting food scraps, including any wasted food, returns nutrients to the soil and reduces organic waste in landfills.

Clothing: Another Huge Area of Unnecessary Waste

As he went snooping through garbage cans around the U.K. as part of his investigative efforts related to the movie, Fearnley-Whittingstall was quite surprised by the amount of perfectly decent clothes that were being discarded. He noted:

"We're binning over £150 million ($195.4 million) worth of clothes every year, and they end up either being incinerated or buried in a landfill. Clothes are cheaper than they've ever been, and on average we own four times more garments than we did 30 years ago. A lot of people go clothes shopping these days not because they need new clothes, but because it makes them feel good."

In the course of his exploration into why so many wearable clothes were being indiscriminately tossed, Fearnley-Whittingstall interviewed several teenagers about their clothing preferences and shopping habits.

He was shocked to learn about vlogs, or video blogs, focused on the "high" achieved from what could only be described as an addiction to clothes shopping. He readily admitted he had never heard of vloggers such as Patricia Bright, Tanya Burr or Zoella, who show off and chat about their latest purchases via YouTube for millions of loyal and adoring fans.

Cheap 'Fast Fashion' Encourages Shopping Addiction

Fearnley-Whittingstall believes these vloggers are "part of a turbo-charged fashion industry that seems hellbent on persuading you to buy more than you need." Because clothes are so cheap, he suggests, you may not think twice about throwing them away to make room for more. One teen shopaholic said:

"About every two weeks, I go for a big shop. There's no need to buy as much as I buy, but I like it. I don't regret spending money. I just think, 'Oh, like, I'm happy now that I've bought myself something.'"

Realizing he could do little to influence the nation's love affair with fashion, Fearnley-Whittingstall hoped simply to make people more aware of the options they have when it comes to clothes they no longer want. In dramatic fashion, he dumped a pile of 10,000 individual clothing items, weighing a whopping combined total of 7 tons, in the middle of a busy shopping mall.

The crowd that gathered around, and later picked through the pile as part of a free clothing giveaway, had trouble guessing how long it takes the whole of Britain to throw away that amount of clothing. Guesses ranged from one week to several days or just a few hours. The crowd was shocked to learn it takes just 10 minutes! The cost of such gross waste has far-reaching effects. Says Fearnley-Whittingstall:

"When you throw this stuff away, you throw away all the work that's gone into them and all the resources, the water, the oil, the energy, the machines and the human labor. That all goes in the garbage, too. Chucking away clothes at our current rate is clearly an environmental disaster."

How You Can Help in the Battle Against Waste

"Hugh's War on Waste," which is fueled by Fearnley-Whittingstall's inquisitive nature and confrontational personality, hits on important topics that are worthy of serious consideration at a macro level, but even more importantly, at a personal level. Each of us must face the reality that our habits and lifestyle choices, without a doubt, affect the environment and people around us. Food waste, for example, is a serious issue — not just in the U.K., but worldwide.

It's unnecessary for people to go hungry while others waste pounds of good, edible food that is readily available. It makes no sense for surplus food to be trashed when it could easily be redistributed to charitable organizations in the local community. Like Fearnley-Whittingstall, I believe large grocery store chains and food conglomerates should be held accountable for their part of the waste equation.

I would encourage you to assess your own waste patterns. To get started, choose one or two of the food-waste tips shown above and begin today to make positive changes in how you handle food.

You might also consider checking with your local grocery store to find out what they do with surplus and expired food. Most certainly there is a food pantry, homeless shelter or soup kitchen that could benefit from donated food items. Everyone deserves access to healthy food, and you may be able to help make a connection to ensure the availability of food to those who are in need. For more information and ideas, check out "Hugh's War on Waste" and the "Waste Not" campaign on Facebook14,15 or Twitter.16,17

How to Grow Dandelion Greens
Fri, 18 Aug 2017 05:00:00 GMT

By Dr. Mercola

Dandelion greens are nutritious, delicious and versatile. They can be added to salads, soups and stews or sautéed and served as a side dish. What you may have only thought of as a pesky weed in your yard is actually a flowering herb with significant health benefits.

The dandelion plant belongs to the largest plant family — the Asteraceae or sunflower family — which includes more than 22,000 species, such as daisies and thistles. The dandelion alone has more than 100 different species, all of which are beneficial to your health.1 In fact, every part of the dandelion can be used, from the roots to the leaves and flowers.

You probably know how difficult they are to eradicate from your yard. When you mow them each week, the plant accommodates and grows a shorter stalk.2 Dandelions have become masters of survival, which is likely what makes them such successful weeds. However, while you may not want them growing in your yard, there are benefits to growing your own patch of dandelions and harvesting the greens for your table.

History of the Dandelion Herb

The dandelion has been embraced across cultures and centuries, but has now been branded suburban enemy No 1. An estimated 80 million pounds of chemicals are poured on yards across the U.S. to eradicate the little flowering herbs, but year after year these hardy plants return. Before the invention of lawns, however, gardeners used to weed out the grass to make room for more dandelions.

The name of the plant originated from the French who called it "dent de lion" or tooth of the lion, as the jagged edges of the leaves are suggestive of a lion's tooth.3 Although it is native to Europe and Asia, it has been carried around the world and is probably one of the most recognizable plants worldwide. It is believed the European settlers found the plant so useful they purposefully brought the dandelion with them to the New World.

The official botanical name for the dandelion is Taraxacum officinale. The pollen from the dandelion doesn't cause allergic reactions as the grains are too large. However, the sap from the plant may cause a common contact dermatitis resulting in swelling and itching.4

The plant is known to grow just about anywhere, but loves direct sunlight. As the flower matures it forms a familiar white puff of seeds that can float as far as 100 miles in the wind before settling into the soil and seeding yet another plot of land.5 Some outdoorsmen claim the dandelion helps them predict the weather. After the flower has gone to seed, if rain is coming the head reportedly will cover the seeds to protect the seed ball until the threat of rain has passed.6

Plant Your Dandelion Crop in the Spring

If you are planting your own dandelion crop, it is probably best to plant them furthest from your neighbor's yard and remove the heads before they seed. You can grow a full crop in your backyard using an inexpensive hot house that allows sun in and keeps the seeds from spreading. Even with such precautions, seed can still leave the hothouse on your clothing or on the sole of you shoes, so you'll still want to remove the heads before the seed ball forms.

When you are starting a crop, the first seeds can be sown outside approximately four to six weeks before the last frost.7 Once they have sprouted, which takes seven to 10 days,8 you'll want to thin them so they are 6 to 8 inches apart, allowing for full growth of the greens and plenty of room for the tap root. You can choose from a variety of different dandelion plants to meet your particular needs. The Clio produces upright greens that are easy to harvest and the Ameliore is a French strain with broader leaves and a milder flavor.9

The root of the dandelion routinely goes 18 inches deep into the soil and is an excellent way of keeping the soil from compacting.10 The root is sturdy and often has little hairy rootlets that may remain in the ground when you harvest your plants and regrow a new plant.11 Although the plants are incredibly resilient to poor conditions, the quality of nutrition you receive from the greens will depend on the quality of the soil the herb grows in.

Dandelions thrive in full sun, but will grow in partial shade. Use soil that drains well and compost the soil in the fall to encourage a strong spring crop. You can harvest the leaves and flowers throughout the summer months. The roots are best harvested during frost-free fall months.12 Before harvesting the leaves, cover the plants with a dark opaque cloth so the leaves blanch, reducing the bitterness of the greens.13

The blossoms should be harvested when they are young and tender, just as they have bloomed. Putting them in a bowl of cold water will prevent them from closing before you eat them.14

Dandelions will grow problem free. You won't have to treat for pests or change planting location unless they are planted in full shade. Dandelions may also be grown in container gardens, which makes covering them to blanch the leaves, or cutting the flower when they go to seed, much easier than if they are planted in your herb garden. Containers can also be set up high to reduce the potential for back pain as you are bending to care for the plants and prevent them from seeding your lawn or your neighbor's yard.

Dandelions Have Significant Health Benefits

Small birds eat the seeds of the dandelion; pigs, goats and rabbits eat the flowers and the nectar is food for the honey bee.15 But, beyond a food source for wildlife, the dandelion holds an amazing amount of health benefits for you as well. There are uses in your kitchen from the root to the flower, and health benefits to each part of the plant as well. Some studies have demonstrated the greens help produce antibodies to cancer.16

Dandelion greens are high in calcium, iron and potassium.17 They are also rich in vitamins C, A, K,18 thiamine and riboflavin,19 and surprisingly rank ahead of both broccoli and spinach in nutritional value. A full cup of chopped greens is a low 24 calories, packing more nutrition in a serving than some of the vegetables you routinely grow in your garden each year.

The vitamins and minerals provided in your dandelion greens help prevent Alzheimer's disease, eye disorders, support your immune system and the development of strong bones and teeth. Practitioners of folk medicine have been using dandelion root and leaves for centuries to prevent and treat several health conditions. The root of the plant increases the flow of bile that may help reduce gallstones, liver congestion and inflammation and jaundice.20

The plant has a second name, "pis-en-lit," (wet the bed) — a name that refers to the diuretic effect of its greens.21 When eaten before bed, they may require you make several trips to the bathroom during the night. Some find the leaves to have a mild laxative effect that aids in movement through your digestive tract.22 Traditionally, the root of the dandelion has been used in the treatment of rheumatism, as it has mild anti-inflammatory effects.

Time of harvest affects the properties of the root. Fall harvest has the greatest health benefits and produces an opaque extract with higher levels of inulin and levulin, starch-like substances that may help balance your blood sugar.23 Spring and summer harvest of the root produces a less bitter product, but with less potent health benefits.

The herb has been used by Native Americans to help heartburn and upset stomach and the Chinese have used it to improve breast milk flow and reduce inflammation in the breast during lactation.24 The Europeans used dandelion greens to help relieve fever, boils, diarrhea and diabetes. As a precautionary note, dandelions may make the side effects of lithium worse, and may increase your risk of bleeding if you are taking a blood thinner.25

Dandelions Propagate Profusely

Dandelions growing in the center of your yard can be harvested and eaten as long as your yard is chemical free and your neighbors don't spray. Even if your neighbors use chemical pellets to treat the yard, the chemicals migrate to the edges of your yard, so don't harvest and eat the dandelions within 10 feet of your neighbor's yard.

You may end up with dandelions in your own yard in places where you don't want them growing. There are several ways to remove them without resorting to chemicals. Even the pellets you sprinkle across your lawn to control weeds contribute to the damage done to wildlife in your area and groundwater pollution that affects the quality of drinking water. Over 5 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually across the world.26 These chemicals affect both plant life and the birds and wildlife that feed on the vegetation.

In most instances the chemicals are fat soluble. This means there is significant biomagnification as the chemicals remain in the insect and animal bodies and accumulate up the food chain. A conservative estimate is that 672 million birds are exposed to pesticides in the U.S. annually and 10 percent of those, or 67 million, are killed outright from ingesting the chemicals.27 The extent of the damage done long term to the bird population is difficult to estimate.

Birds exposed to chemicals also suffer "sublethal" effects that include thinning egg shells that break under the weight of the incubating adult, hormone disruption, impaired immune systems and a lack of appetite.28 Each of these consequences severely impairs the ability of the bird to reproduce, migrate and survive.

Birds may be particularly vulnerable as they can both mistake the pesticide pellets for seed and eat insects that are also laden with chemicals, doubling the load of pesticides they ingest.

Children are also more vulnerable than adults as they absorb more chemicals for their size relative to adults and are more vulnerable to the effects of the toxins in their bodies. A report by Environmental and Human Health Inc. found children exposed to pesticides had a higher incidence of childhood leukemia, soft tissue sarcomas and brain cancers.29

Some assume these chemicals are safe for use as they are sold over-the-counter, but while the Environmental Protection Agency classifies four of the more common lawn chemicals as having insufficient data to assess the impact on the development of cancer in humans, all are associated with the sixth most common form of cancer in the U.S., non-Hodgkin lymphoma.30

These chemicals don't disappear after a couple of days either. They are incorporated into the leaves of the grass eaten by insects and your pet dog. They seep into the groundwater in your neighborhood, which affects the water that eventually reaches your tap. Residue is tracked indoors on the bottom of your shoes where it accumulates in the dust in your home.

Get Rid of Your Lawn Dandelions Naturally

There are several ways to keep your lawn clear of dandelions without resorting to toxic chemicals. Dandelions thrive in direct sunlight so when the grass grows 3 to 4 inches tall it helps to reduce the growth of the plant. The plant won't flower until all the leaves have formed and only if there is sufficient sunlight and moisture.31 In the short time-lapsed video above you can watch one dandelion go from flower to seed ball in two days.

You can kill the plant, and therefore not worry about the tap root producing another plant, by spraying a mixture of white vinegar, water and salt directly on the plant. This will kill the surrounding plants as well, so use a direct spray and be careful where you aim it.

Your third option is to pull the plants from the ground, being careful to pull up the tap root from the end as any root you leave will produce another plant. Work in your yard when the ground is moist, such as after a deep watering or a long slow rain. Mother Earth News recommends three different weeders designed specifically for dandelions to help you remain chemical free.32

Each of the weeding options allow you to work standing up to reduce strain on your lower back and knees. The prices range between $20 and $30. Using a combination of all three strategies — length of grass, spraying individual plants with vinegar and salt and pulling individual plants — may help you keep a lawn free of dandelions and even address other types of weeds. Remember to address the plant before it goes to seed, as once the seeds begin to spread, all control is lost.

Use the Leaves, Roots and Flowers in Recipes at Home

In this short video, a chef from the Martha Steward test kitchen demonstrates making a chick pea and dandelion salad using fresh from the garden vegetables. Using the greens in a salad is just one way to use the plant — there are many more:33,34

Roots can be dried, ground and brewed like coffee

Dandelion wine made from the flowers

Flowers fried in butter

Dry the roots, roast a 300 degrees F and grind; add to hot chocolate

Mix greens in potato salad or egg salad

Sautéed like spinach and added to eggs, served as a side dish or in a quiche

Cold pickling in a salt brine; heat may destroy the delicate leaves

Kimchi made with dandelion greens

Flowers mixed with apple peel or orange zest and made into jam

Roots chopped fine and stir fried

Dandelion pumpkin seed pesto

Dandelion blossom cookies