How to Wash Vegetables and Fruits Before Eating

woman washing vegetables in sink
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The fresh produce you buy at the grocery store may look clean, but there's always a chance it’s contaminated with bacteria, bits of dirt, or even pieces of insects.

While a little dirt (and even a few bug bits) may not be harmful to your health, bacteria such as listeria, salmonella, and E. coli that may be lurking on your fruits and veggies can cause foodborne illness.

It’s important to note that whether the produce is organically grown or conventionally grown, the risk of bacterial contamination remains. People often choose to buy locally-grown, organic produce in hopes of lowering their risk of ingesting potentially harmful chemicals from pesticides and herbicides, though buying organic tends to be more expensive and can be harder to access.

The best defense is learning how to wash vegetables and fruit properly. Good food handling and kitchen-cleaning practices prevent foodborne illness and help remove the residue pesticides or herbicides may leave behind. 

Effects of Pesticides

Non-organic farmers use pesticides to kill weeds and insects that threaten the growth and quality of the produce they grow. As the plants grow, these pesticides are absorbed. Residue can linger on the skin of produce even after it's been washed.

Conventional chemical pesticides have been linked to a number of potential health effects, including neurological problems, hormonal disruptions, and some forms of cancer. 

Children may be particularly sensitive to pesticides: Some studies have found exposure to these chemicals may contribute to neurological problems in children which may impair learning, memory, and attention. One possible explanation for their increased sensitivity is that children eat more food relative to their size than adults do, and are therefore less capable of processing any chemicals that enter by way of produce. 

The Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen

You may be able to reduce your exposure to pesticides by choosing certified organic products grown using less chemical-based fertilizer. You can also try to avoid products on the Environmental Working Group's "Dirty Dozen" list.

The list is compiled annually by the EWG using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It presents a ranked list of produce by their potential to increase pesticide exposure in consumers.

Foods More Likely to Have Pesticides in 2020

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

The EWG Clean 15

By contrast, the report’s "Clean 15" list highlights produce that is less likely to have pesticides. These fruits and vegetables are considered safer to purchase when conventionally-grown—either due to how the produce is eaten or because it is protected from pesticides due to how it’s grown or cultivated.

Foods Less Likely to Have Pesticides in 2020

  1. Avocados
  2. Sweet corn
  3. Pineapple
  4. Onions
  5. Papaya
  6. Sweet peas (frozen)
  7. Eggplant
  8. Asparagus
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Cantaloupe
  11. Broccoli
  12. Mushrooms
  13. Cabbage
  14. Honeydew melon
  15. Kiwi

Popular Produce With Pesticide Residue 

The fruits and vegetables included on this list come after the Dirty Dozen. Their rank is also based on how these fruits and vegetables are most often eaten: for example, whether they are typically washed (apples) or peeled (bananas).

Foods with a high pesticide residue score:

  1. Apples
  2. Apple sauces
  3. Blueberries
  4. Grapes
  5. Green beans
  6. Leafy greens
  7. Pears
  8. Peaches
  9. Potatoes
  10. Plums
  11. Spinach
  12. Strawberries
  13. Raisins
  14. Sweet peppers
  15. Tomatoes
  16. Winter squashes

Foods with a low pesticide residue score:

  1. Apple juice
  2. Avocados
  3. Bananas
  4. Beans
  5. Broccoli
  6. Cabbages
  7. Cantaloupes
  8. Carrots
  9. Cauliflower
  10. Celery
  11. Corn
  12. Eggplant
  13. Grapefruit
  14. Lentils
  15. Lettuce
  16. Onions
  17. Oranges
  18. Orange juices
  19. Peas
  20. Prunes
  21. Summer squashes
  22. Sweet potatoes
  23. Tofu
  24. Tomato sauces
  25. Zucchini

Why Wash Produce?

Unless they're covered in dirt when you bring them home, it's usually best to wash vegetables and fruit right before you use them. Most types of produce have natural coatings that keep moisture inside, so washing may make them spoil more quickly. Berries are especially prone to mold growth if they're washed then stored in the fridge.

Keep your kitchen countertops, refrigerator, cookware, and cutlery clean. Always wash your hands before handling fruits and vegetables.

How to Wash Vegetables

Wash all pre-packaged produce like salad mixes and bagged spinach, even if the label claims the contents are pre-washed—though not all experts agree. It's possible the leaves may have been exposed to bacteria or contain contaminants that were missed.

For firm vegetables like potatoes, start by rubbing them under running water. Don't use any soaps, detergents, bleaches, or other toxic cleaning chemicals. Commercial produce sprays aren't any better than a thorough cleaning with plain water and the chemicals in these washes can leave a residue on the skin and affect its flavor.

For lettuce and cabbage, remove and discard the outer leaves then thoroughly rinse the rest. Greens like beet tops or Swiss chard are especially likely to harbor bits of sand and dirt, so you may want to rinse them twice.

All mushrooms need is gentle brushing; no water needed. Rinsing them with water may make them more difficult to clean.

How to Wash Fruit

Firm produce like apples can be scrubbed with a brush while rinsing with clean water. Be sure to keep your produce brush clean between uses.

Once washed, let any loose fruit like berries or grapes drain in a colander. When you’re ready to serve or prepare, transfer them to clean bowls or cookware.

Finally, make sure to always keep your clean, ready-to-serve produce away from raw eggs, meats, poultry, or seafood, as these sources harbor bacteria and may recontaminate them.

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Article Sources
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