- Mia Syn, MS, RD, registered dietitian, national on-air nutrition expert, and author of Mostly Plant-Based: 100 Delicious Plant-Forward Recipes Using 10 Ingredients or Less
Syn says that while we should never fear consuming fresh fruits and vegetables or avoid doing due to the statistic above, we should assume that all fresh produce needs to be rinsed by the time it reaches your kitchen—whether it’s organic, conventional, fresh from the farm, or shipped internationally. "The bottom line is that all produce should be washed before consuming, no matter what, if you want to lower your risk of foodborne illnesses like norovirus—and trust me, you do," Syn says.
But, as it turns out, it’s also perfectly possible to go overboard in the quest for a squeaky-clean piece of produce. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), using sprays and soaps when washing produce is not only unnecessary, but could actually make you sick. “The use of suggested substances other than water, such as soaps, sprays, and special produce washes, have not been scientifically proven to be more effective and can even be dangerous to your health,” says Syn.
As the FDA explains on its website, produce is porous, which means that fruits and vegetables can absorb soaps and detergents no matter how thoroughly you rinse them off after application. "Wash all produce thoroughly under running water before preparing and/or eating, including produce grown at home or bought from a grocery store or farmers’ market," recommends the FDA. "Washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash is not recommended. Produce is porous. Soap and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and can make you sick. Also, the safety of the residues of commercial produce washes is not known and their effectiveness has not been tested."
If you couldn’t guess, consuming soap is not recommended and can make you sick. And those all-natural sprays you’ve got under your sink? Their safety and efficacy hasn’t been proven, so it’s safest to stay away from those, too. When it comes to handling produce, all you really need is some cool tap water and gentle friction to get the job done properly.
How to wash produce safely and properly, according to a registered dietitian and the FDA
Syn outlines the best way to wash produce in the following four steps, in accordance with the guidance from the FDA:
1. First, choose produce that hasn’t been damaged or bruised or cut away the damaged or bruised areas. For heads of lettuce or cabbage, remove the outermost leaves.
2. Before preparing your produce, make sure to wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap so that you’re not contaminating it with any dirt or bacteria existing on your hands.
3. Rinse produce under plain running water prior to peeling it so that you aren’t transferring any bacteria or soil from the knife onto your produce. For firm produce like potatoes, melons, and cucumbers, you can use a clean vegetable brush for scrubbing.
4. Dry produce with a clean paper towel or cloth to wipe away any residue that might have been missed.
Syn also recommends washing produce right before eating instead of before storage to avoid bacterial growth and quick spoilage. After all, If there’s anything worse than your fresh greens going slimy after only a few days in the fridge, it's getting sick from them. If you want to go the extra food safety mile, make sure to also separate your fruits and veggies from raw poultry, meat, or seafood in your shopping cart and bags. When it comes to avoiding cross-contamination, we promise that a little effort goes a long way.
To learn more about pesticides and produce, check out this informative explainer on the annual Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen list:
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