washing_carrotsby 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:

  1.  Apples
  2. Straw­ber­ries
  3. Grapes
  4. Cel­ery
  5. Peach­es
  6. Spinach
  7. Bell pep­pers
  8. Nec­tarines (import­ed)
  9. Cucum­bers
  10. Cher­ry tomatoes
  11. Snap peas (import­ed)
  12. Pota­toes

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!


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