What’s the best way to wash produce?
BY JENNIFER MOTL
After a recent bout of food poisoning that I think was caused by lettuce, I’m being more careful than ever about thoroughly washing fruits and veggies.
Each year, one in six Americans gets sick from food, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And while it’s perhaps more well-known to get sick from undercooked burgers and chicken, bacteria can contaminate raw produce, too.
“Last year, one-third of the foodborne illness outbreaks were linked to fresh produce, including the deadly Jensen Farms Listeria outbreak in cantaloupes,” according to Food Poisoning Bulletin.
Foodborne illness can ranges from stomach cramps, vomiting and diarrhea to severe organ failure and even death, in rare cases.
But don’t give up your fruits and veggies—they’re proven to help reduce rates of heart attack, stroke, cancer and diabetes. Instead, protect yourself by taking some simple steps.
It sounds obvious, but start by washing your own hands. And use a colander and cutting board that have not touched any other foods, to avoid cross-contamination.
As for washing produce, I don’t want to spend money on fancy produce washes unless they really work, and you probably don’t either.
I did a little research, and below I’ll discuss the virtues and drawbacks of washing methods such as rinsing with plain water, scrubbing, using produce washes, vinegar, lemon juice and even hydrogen peroxide.
WATER IS JUST FINE
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration both say that produce washes, detergents or bleach are unnecessary. They can even be dangerous—if the foods absorb inedible detergents, for example.
Instead, federal scientists simply recommend rinsing fruits and veggies in running water. It sounds almost too easy, but water effectively removes most bacteria.
You can use a veggie brush to scrub hearty produce such as zucchini, apples and cucumbers. But there is no need to scrub tender fruits and veggies such as strawberries, lettuce, mushrooms and the like, although you should refrigerate these foods as soon as you bring them home, since they spoil more quickly.
Do cut out any bruised parts of the produce. And refrigerate cut produce immediately. It’s also useful to remove the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage before washing.
However, there is no need to rewash packaged greens that are labeled prewashed, according to experts, as long as the greens were stored in a refrigerator or on ice.
Although you don’t eat melon rinds or avocado shells, it’s helpful to wash them, anyway, before cutting. That way, when you slice the melon, you won’t be transferring bacteria from the outside to the edible flesh inside.
Although not endorsed by the government, Cook’s Illustrated magazine conducted tests showing that diluted vinegar removed even more bacteria than water alone—98 percent of bacteria.
You can replicate their wash at home by mixing one part white distilled vinegar and three parts tap water. Keep it in a spray bottle and spray on your produce, then rinse with tap water.
Some veggies, like lettuce, are hard to spray thoroughly. You can soak lettuce in the vinegar-water solution. All you need is 30 seconds in the vinegar, then rinse with running water. Some fragile fruits such as strawberries do not do hold up well to vinegar, so stick with plain water instead.
Perhaps because it is acidic like vinegar, diluted lemon juice worked well at killing germs in another study. But lemon juice is more expensive than vinegar, so I don’t think it is worthwhile.
HOMEMADE TRIPLE WASH
One Virginia Tech scientist recommended that folks triple wash by first spraying foods with vinegar, then spraying with hydrogen peroxide, and then rinsing food in plain water. First developed to disinfect beef carcasses, according to a report in Science News, apparently this method works on all foods. But it seems a bit much to me.
Luckily, most of us do not have to go to great lengths to enjoy fresh fruits and veggies. Gently washing food in water works surprisingly well.
Jennifer Motl is a registered dietitian. Formerly of Fredericksburg, she now lives in Wisconsin. She welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating.com, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.