The Dirty Truth about Washing Produce

February 23, 2016

When you buy pre-packaged lettuce at the grocery store, most of us just eat it right from the bag without a second thought, but should you be washing your “pre-washed” produce?  What about organic or homegrown fruits and vegetables?   Even though you might not have to worry about pesticides, there are other factors you might want to consider.

Rewashing Pre-washed Produce

Pre-washed produce has been given a commercial bath in chlorinated water before packaging, so there’s no need to wash it again, unless it just makes you feel better.

Beware of Fecal Matter

As far as organic and home-grown fruit and veggies – yes, you should wash.   It can be so tempting to bite into that vine-ripened tomato, still warm from the sun, picked in your backyard garden, but unfortunately, wiping it on your shirt, just isn’t enough.

While there may be an absence of pesticides on your home-grown and organic produce, there could be fecal matter in the compost-enriched soil which may have splashed up during harvesting, or even just plain dirt. Either way, the produce should be thoroughly rinsed off.

What about those wild blackberries you find?  Is it safe to just pop a few in your mouth?   That depends on whether the thought that a bird or critter may have peed on the berry bush bothers you.  Consider, too, that contaminants may have washed down with the rain.  Also, with organic produce from a market,  you don’t know how much it has been handled, or how.  Better to take the time than to take the risk.

When to Wash

Wait until just before you’re ready to use it, since bacteria can grow on produce while it’s stored in your refrigerator. Also, many, if not most, fruits and vegetables will spoil faster when they have damp skin.  Return unwashed, unused produce to the fridge as soon as possible, wrapped to prevent as much air as possible from affecting it.

Best Technique to Wash

To wash:  Rinse the produce under clear running water (doesn’t have to be hot or even warm), rubbing or scrubbing gently with a vegetable brush.  Ordinary tap water has been shown to do a perfectly fine job and removes 98% of bacteria.  If you’re concerned about your tap water, you can invest in distilled water.  Chemical washes claim to do a better job, but it’s unclear whether the residues left after using them are safe to eat.   Once it’s thoroughly cleaned, pat dry gently with a clean towel.

What About Produce That Will Be Peeled?

Always rinse the outside of the fruit or vegetable even if you don’t plan to eat the outer part (think: cantaloupe, cucumbers, squash) since you could spread bacteria from the outer shell to the inner fruit via your knife.  When peeling, be sure to use a clean utensil that has not been used on other foods you’re preparing, especially raw meat.

Food For Thought

Now that you know your fruits and veggies are clean, think about how to eat them.  Often the skin of produce contains valuable nutrients, so don’t always peel.   An unpeeled apple has nearly double the fiber, plus more vitamin A and potassium than a peeled apple.  A potato peel contains 20% of the vegetable’s nutrients, including B vitamins and fiber. If the peel and the inner part of a vegetable are the same color, like carrots, they have equivalent nutrients.

For more information on this and related subjects, visit ModernFarmer.com