Food and Nutrition

You’re Probably Not Washing Your Strawberries Properly—Here’s How To Fix That

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Of the all the things to look forward to in the summer, high on the list is undoubtedly the arrival of fresh strawberries. What's sweeter than your first bite into a perfectly ripe ruby red berry? Nothing—save for an ice cold strawberry smoothie, a bite of jammy strawberry shortcake, or another fresh, seasonal strawberry recipe. While the miracles of modern agriculture have made the most popular berry in the United States available all year long, never are they more delicious than in their natural peak time: right now.

Alas, strawberries also top another less desirable list—the Dirty Dozen. Each year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a list of the 12 fruits and vegetables with the highest levels of pesticide residue based on samples collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). And in 2021—and four-plus years prior—the dirtiest of the dozen is none other than the beloved strawberry.

My point? While you should absolutely continue to relish strawberries in every form (alongside all of the other fruits and vegetables that rank high on the Dirty Dozen list), just be sure to give them a thorough rinse before you devour them. Here's why that's necessary—plus how to wash your strawberries properly—according to the food safety experts at the FDA.

Why is it so important to clean strawberries?

Given the ubiquity of strawberries in the United States—the University of Illinois estimates that around 94 percent of American households consume strawberries, and the average American eats about eight pounds of fresh strawberries a year—it’s hard to imagine that they've been found to contain more pesticide residue than any other form of produce. But this reality is due in part to the way that strawberries are grown.

Unlike most fruits that grow on vines or from trees, strawberries grow directly in soil, which contains its own pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, many fruits that have been found to contain fewer pesticide residue, like bananas and oranges, have a peel—aka nature's built-in "packaging"—that helps protect their edible insides from the effects of contamination. Strawberries do not have such a luxury. Finally, strawberries are popular among pests and other animals (we get it), which makes some farmers a *bit* trigger happy when it comes to spraying down the fruit.

All of the above is nothing to lose sleep over, but underscores the importance of rinsing your ruby reds.

How should I get rid of the pesticides on strawberries?

According to the FDA, there are a few easy steps to follow when washing not only strawberries, but any kind of fresh produce.

  1. “When preparing any fresh produce, start with clean hands,” says Amanda Turney, a spokesperson for the FDA. Seems like a no-brainer, but you'd be surprised how often this step gets skipped. “Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after preparation.”
  2. Remove any bruised, rotten, or otherwise damaged parts of your strawberries. You don’t have to throw away the whole thing, but if you notice that your produce appears to be moldy anywhere or feels excessively mushy, don’t even bother trying to wash away the damage. In this case,  it is likely safest to discard the entire berry.
  3. Next, in the case of strawberries, place the berries in a colander and run them under cold water, gently rubbing the fruit while you do so. Make sure you get each strawberry in the washing process, stems included. While you may be tempted to use soap or a produce wash, the FDA does not recommend using anything other than water in your washing routine—after all, why introduce yet another chemical into your fruit’s life cycle? However, if they do look severely dirty, you can soak your berries for a couple of minutes in a solution of 1 1/2 cups water and 1/4 cup vinegar, then give them a good rinse.
  4. “After washing, gently dry strawberries with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface,” Turney concludes. You can lay them down on a towel to speed up the drying process, too.
  5. Serve your berries soon, as washing your strawberries ahead of time may make them mushy and speed up the spoiling process. If you aren't eating them immediately, Glenda Lewis, a foodborne illness expert with the FDA, says to store them in the fridge until you're ready to nosh. Additionally, if you plan on cutting your strawberries for a fruit salad or a smoothie, she advises doing so after you’ve already washed them to prevent the transfer of dirt, bacteria, or chemicals.

To find out more about the Dirty Dozen list (and why you shouldn't necessarily skip any of the produce on it), see here: 

BTW, if you took a longer look at the Dirty Dozen list and found yourself wondering whether you should just cancel strawberry season entirely to avoid pesticide potential, we're here to talk you down. While pesticides are certainly not meant to be ingested, the good news is that a solid cleaning session does a great job of washing these chemicals off your fresh produce. So don’t fret or stop eating fresh fruits and vegetables—just make sure that you’re following the protocol above before eating or using them.

If you’re looking for another way to reduce the number of pesticides in your diet, buying organic could also help. The USDA only allows produce to be classified as organic if it’s been verified to be grown in soil without any “prohibited substances” (like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides) for three years before harvest.

That said, given how easy it is to clean strawberries, if you find the price of organic produce prohibitive, there’s no need to panic. Just give your non-organic fruits and veggies a thorough rinse and you’re good to go.

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