By: Lisa Zook, Dietitian
Looking to improve your diet this Spring? Eating a varied diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, is one of the keys to good health. However, to stay healthy, it's equally important to makes sure the produce you consume is safe to eat. One way to do that is to make sure any fruits or vegetables you use have been washed well before you peel, cut, eat, or cook with them. Pesticides can also be reduced by washing fruits and vegetables properly.
How Fruits and Vegetables Become Contaminated
Although most people understand that meat products such as chicken need to be properly handled to prevent food-borne illnesses, some do not realize that fruits and vegetables may also cause illness if not handled and stored properly. In fact, in recent years, contaminated fruits and vegetables have been the culprit in several large outbreaks of food-borne illness. That is because they are eaten in the raw state at most times. Some of the ways fruits and vegetables can become contaminated include:
- Harmful substances present in the soil or water during growing
- Poor hygiene among workers during harvest, packing, and transporting
- Pesticide use during growing to prevent plant disease and pest infestation
The following fruits and vegetables have been found to have larger amounts of pesticides:
- Apples, strawberries, grapes, celery, peaches, spinach, bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and potatoes. They have levels within the USDA limits but should be washed carefully before eating to make them safer to eat.
How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables
- Start by choosing produce that's free of bruises, mold, or other signs of damage. If you are purchasing precut items, make sure they have been refrigerated or displayed on ice at the supermarket.
- Once home, store perishable fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator (at 40 degrees F or below) until you're ready to use them. Always store precut fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, too.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh produce.
- Use a sharp paring knife to cut away any damaged or bruised areas of the fruit or vegetable.
- Wash the produce before you peel it. That way, contaminants will not be transferred from your knife to the fruit or vegetable.
- Hold the fruit or vegetable under cool running tap water, gently rubbing it as you rinse it.
- For firm produce, such as melons and winter squash, use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the surface as you rinse it. Do not brush too hard.
- Produce with bumpy, uneven surfaces, such as cauliflower and broccoli, should be soaked for 1 to 2 minutes in cold water to remove contaminants, soil and bugs from the nooks and crannies.
- Use a clean cloth or paper towel to dry the produce before using it.
How to Wash Salad Greens
Salad greens require special attention. First, discard the wilted outer leaves; then prep and wash greens as directed for each type.
- For leafy lettuces, such as green or red-tip leaf, butter head, and romaine as well as endive, remove and discard the root end. Separate leaves and hold them under cold running water to remove any dirt.
- For smaller greens, such as spinach and arugula, swirl them in a bowl or a clean sink filled with cold water about 30 seconds. Remove the leaves and shake gently to let dirt and other debris fall into the water. Repeat the process if necessary. Drain in a colander.
- For iceberg lettuce, remove the core by hitting the stem end on the countertop; twist and lift out the core. Hold the head, core side up under cold running water, pulling leaves apart slightly. Invert the head and drain thoroughly. Repeat if necessary.
- For mesclun (a mixture of young, small salad greens often available in bulk at farmers markets), rinse in a colander or the basket of a salad spinner.
Other Tips for Washing Fruits and Vegetables
- Do not use soap or detergents when washing produce.
- You need not seek out a special produce wash to clean fruits and vegetables. Cool, clean, running tap water is fine. Studies have shown that tap water is effective as vegetable sprays and vinegar or lemon water.
- Wash all produce before using, even if you are going to peel it including bananas. Any dirt and bacteria on the outside of unwashed produce can be transferred from the knife into the fruit or vegetable.
Tip: Even organic fruits and vegetables, as well as produce from your own garden or local farmer's markets, should be washed well.