Do You Really Need to Wash Fruits and Vegetables Before Eating?
With so many differences of opinion when it comes to the proper way of washing produce, and whether or not it makes a difference, it’s difficult to know if we’re following the right recommendations.
One theory is that cooking your vegetables is more than enough to kill germs and bacteria, therefore, skipping a rinse is not a big deal. Others, swear by certain products like baking soda, vinegar, or produce disinfectants to keep their fruits and vegetables clean. On the other hand, studies also point out that cross-contamination with other germy areas in your kitchen, like your sink, often poses a threat to exposure of harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about 48 million people get sick from eating contaminated food every year. And despite experiencing intense abdominal pain and violent diarrhea and vomiting – experts estimate that out of those who get sick with food poisoning, nearly 130,000 will require hospitalization and about 3,000 of those cases will result in death.
There have been dozens of foodborne outbreaks in the US in recent years, including one in 2011 linked to cantaloupes that left 33 dead, and one in 2006 caused by packaged baby spinach that infected at least 205 across 26 states. Other major outbreaks due to bacteria in strawberries, cucumbers, bean sprouts, green onions, papayas, and tomatoes have produced hundreds of hospitalizations and dozens of deaths over the last two decades.
So now that it’s been established that washing your fruits and vegetables is essential for preventing foodborne illness, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of when, how, and which produce you should be rinsing before consumption.
Before storing OR prior to eating – when should you wash produce?
There are basically two types of people when it comes to cleaning fresh produce: before-storing rinsers and before-eating rinsers. So, who’s right? Well, both options have their pros and cons. For example, washing produce in bulk prior to storing it can save you lots of time, and for fruits and veggies that are visibly soiled, giving them a quick rinse before sticking them in the fridge minimizes the risk of cross-contaminating the food that’s already in there.
But experts agree that when it comes to rinsing fresh produce, it’s always better to wait right before eating unless the item is very dirty. Why? For one, bacteria can re-grow (or continue growing) while the produce is stored. And because moisture speeds up decay, washing fruits and veggies in advance could also cause them to spoil prematurely.
If you absolutely must wash your fresh produce in advance, just make sure you dry each piece thoroughly before storing it. A salad spinner works great for leafy greens, as does air drying or gently placing the fruits or veggies between two clean kitchen towels and rubbing them together gently.
How to wash fruits and vegetables before eating
It may seem like a pretty straightforward process, but you may be surprised to learn there’s actually a right and a wrong way of cleaning fresh produce. Here’re the do’s and don’ts of washing fruits and vegetables your mom never told you about:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before washing and preparing fresh produce to ensure no microbes are transferred to your food during the cleaning process
- Rinse fruits and vegetables before you peel them so avoid transferring debris from your knife or peeler onto the item
- Run the produce under plain water and gently rub away dirt and debris — your hands are perfect tools for this, so there’s no need to use a fancy brush or sponge unless you see a lot of buildup
- Remove the outermost layers of leafy vegetables like lettuce, cabbage, and brussel sprouts where most of the dirt typically hides
- Alternatively, you can make a DIY produce wash by filling a clean tub or sink with cold water and adding 3 tablespoons of baking soda. Soak fruits and veggies for about 5 minutes, rinse with water and pat dry
- Never wash food with commercial cleaners like soap or bleach as they can get absorbed by the produce and can make you very sick
- Don’t use hot water. Although hot water can neutralize bacteria, it can also damage your produce and allow bacteria to seep in
- There’s no need to rinse pre-washed produce, but if you are going to do it, keep it away from unwashed fruits and vegetables to avoid cross-contamination
- There’s no need to wash frozen produce, either
- Never rinse produce and meat together. In fact, you should always avoid rinsing or soaking meat products altogether
- Don’t rinse mushrooms. Instead, wipe them clean with a damp (clean) cloth or paper towel
A final word
While it can be tedious and time-consuming, washing your produce before consuming it helps rid your food of dangerous disease-causing bacteria like E. coli and salmonella. Always make sure you wash your hands before and after handling raw food to prevent cross-contamination and avoid using harsh cleaners like dish soap or bleach directly onto food.
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