by Allison Schultz
As summer comes to a close and the seasonal harvest of vegetables peaks its good to remember a few basic hygiene steps to keep in mind. Before biting into that peach, roasting those fingerling potatoes or grilling that asparagus, you should always remember to clean your produce first. Technique is important here, but it does not have to be complicated. Just a few simple steps will have you ready to chow down safely and enjoyably in no time.
According to the FDA, produce is grown in “non-sterile environments.” This generally refers to the use of manure fertilizer in production. As Marion Nestle, noted nutritionist and food educator, explains, “Fruits and vegetables are loaded with microbes, but even the ones acquired from [fertilizer] are mostly harmless. Washing and cooking take care of most microbes on or in food, and any others are usually killed by stomach acid, or blocked from doing harm by the immune system.” Having said that, especially because the majority of fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, you’re definitely going to want to wash them.
Don’t skip this step just because the incidence of foodborne illness related to raw produce is rare! Not only are you protecting yourself and your family against ingestion of undesirable pathogens, you’re also removing dirt and grit that could detract from your dining experience. Even though farm-fresh food evokes nostalgia for picking a sun-ripened tomato fresh from the vine, or a crisp, juicy apple from a branch overhead, adhering to just a few simple measures before you put that food directly into your eagerly awaiting mouth is always a good idea.
Always remember, whenever embarking on any task involving food prep, to wash your hands first. Taking this simple step will help you to avoid introducing any additional potential contaminants to your food.
Contrary to what you may have been told, you shouldn’t rush to clean all of your fruit and vegetables as soon as you get them home. Many items will actually last longer if you wait to wash them until just before eating. A longer shelf life helps you to avoid wasting beautiful farm-fresh produce, and can actually save you money in the long run. If you are storing any items that have already been washed, remember to dry them as much as possible or allow to air dry before storing. This added step helps to keep fresh produce from rotting.
Remember to keep cleaned items separate from unwashed produce. Clean out your produce crispers and bins regularly, as well as the fruit bowl that you probably keep on your counter. This will help to prevent cross-contamination, or the introduction of new bacteria and pathogens from the bottom of the bin onto the new produce that you just purchased.
Basically, you’re going to want to thoroughly clean anything with cracks, crevices, nooks, crannies, or indentations of any kind. Smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables certainly require rinsing as well, but irregular surfaces in particular offer ideal hideaways for dirt and bacteria. Give your produce a good scrubbing, and for good measure consider cutting off and discarding the stem and bottom ends of produce, where it’s hardest to clean.
Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) puts out a list of conventionally-grown foods known to have the highest and the lowest rates of pesticide contamination.
Reducing pesticide exposure is generally accepted to be a good idea these days, as synthetic pesticides and chemicals can be potentially damaging to human health. Chronic pesticide exposure has been shown to cause cancer, to disrupt DNA and cell health, and to affect fetus growth. The EPA claims pesticide exposure may be carcinogenic, may affect the nervous and endocrine systems, and may irritate the skin and eyes. This depends, of course, on the type of pesticide and level of exposure.
The top of the pesticide contamination list is known as the Dirty Dozen, and the EWG recommends taking extra care when purchasing and cleaning these particular varieties of produce. They encourage consumers to purchase organic items in these categories whenever possible, as organic growing methods do not allow the use of certain pesticides. Starting with the highest rate of pesticide contamination, these items are:
- Bell peppers
- Nectarines (imported)
- Cherry tomatoes
- Snap peas (imported)
The “imported” notation is intended to imply that conventionally-grown domestic varieties of nectarines and snap peas tend to have less potential pesticide residue than their imported counterparts.
Avocados, sweet corn and pineapples are noted on the Dirty Dozen list for having some of the lowest potential levels of surface pesticide contamination, but don’t be mislead—all of these types of produce are items from which most consumers remove the outer peel, thus removing the general risk of surface-level pesticide ingestion. Continue to wash these items as you would any other produce, despite their lower risk factor. As a simple rule of thumb, remember to wash everything, even if you’re not going to eat the outer layers!
The same can be said for many of the items at the top of the list—for potatoes and apples, simply remove the peel before eating to reduce your potential pesticide exposure. Unfortunately, most of the nutrients in these and other fruits and vegetables are actually found in the peels. Shifting your purchasing habits to favor organic produce is a potential solution to this conundrum. Though organic apples and potatoes do exist, they can be hard to find. These particular crops are especially prone to certain types of infestation and blight. This can make production using non-conventional methods, such as organic farming, especially difficult. When organic isn’t available, look for low-spray varieties, and be sure to clean your produce thoroughly.
In addition to potential pesticide exposure, you also want to avoid exposure to pathogens and bacteria that may be found on the surface of unwashed produce. When you are ready to eat, all items should be cleaned under cool running water, to remove surface dirt and grit. As
Mark Bittman says, “Wash away visible dirt and, we hope, you’ll also be washing away pesticide residue, bacteria, fungi, and the by-products of picking, packing, shipping, and handling.” Delicate items like berries can be rinsed in a colander under cool, running water. Asparagus, lettuce and other leafy greens can be submerged in a tub or large bowl of cool water and then rinsed, to remove sand and dirt from cracks and crevices.
Keep in mind, it is not necessary to use soap, hot water, or even warm water to clean produce. The change in temperature or introduction of chemicals found in soap can penetrate the outer membranes of your fruit and vegetables, allowing bacteria and other contaminants to enter your food. Instead, try a vegetable brush. Bittman recommends some additional scrubbing, particularly for root vegetables, which are often caked with a visible layer of dirt. Use a vegetable brush with medium to soft bristles under cool running water. For those of you who typically throw potato peels away, perhaps a good scrubbing can entice you to eat those peels instead!
According to Allison Aubrey of NPR, a study was done by the folks at Cook’s Illustrated to compare produce cleansing techniques. The testers found that a scrub brush actually removed 85% of surface bacteria from produce. A diluted vinegar rinse removed 98%. Testers recommended filling a spray bottle with vinegar/water solution, giving each piece of produce a few sprays to coat the surface, then rinsing under cool tap water. Leafy, bumpy, or cranny-filled produce that isn’t smooth can be cleaned with a vinegar solution soak, followed by a good rinse.
The general consensus regarding the use of commercial produce washes is to avoid them, as they can be expensive and often introduce unwanted chemical additives. Studies have shown that simple water and a bit of scrubbing removes a comparable amount of surface additives from produce. In the case of tougher jobs, or if you’d just feel more comfortable being extra vigilant, try adding a splash of vinegar to the soaking bath and rinse vegetables thoroughly after soaking. Most experts agree one part vinegar to three parts water is a good mix.
According to the Cook’s Illustrated testers, commercial vegetable washes were found to be unnecessary; water and a bit of a scrub actually works just as well. The testers also recommended soaking vegetables in a large, clean bowl or tub rather than your kitchen sink, to avoid introducing additional bacteria.
You’ve probably noticed that some types of produce, like apples and lemons, are often coated with a shiny layer of wax. Though this helps presentation, it isn’t really good to eat. If you can, avoid waxed produce in favor of uncoated varieties. If this isn’t an option, avoid eating the peels. If you really need lemon zest for a recipe but just can’t find unwaxed lemons, a light scrubbing might help. You can also try a diluted vinegar solution to help dissolve and remove surface level waxes and oils.
Armed with knowledge, you are now ready to go out and eat the fresh fruits and vegetables that you’ve procured, to your heart’s delight. To recap, you always want to keep your hands, storage areas and work areas clean. Clean all produce just before eating, under cool running water. Soak items that are more difficult to clean, using a diluted vinegar solution if you like. Always follow with a cool water rinse, and enjoy!