Washing Conventional Fruits and Vegetables

Before I delve too far into my kitchen, I want to quickly ask you a question.  How do you wash your fruits and vegetables?

Think about that.  I really would like to hear your answer to that question (or your revised answer after thinking about it for a minute).  I’m not pretending to be an expert in the food industry, but rather I am writing this post to foster a balanced discussion on the issue of all produce (and its contamination).

Note that I’m not asking whether you buy organic produce or not because even “100% organic” produce can get contaminated with pesticides, herbicides, and bacteria (via environmental factors such as wind, animals, etc.).  I, like many others, would recommend eating as much organic produce as possible because it gets contaminated far less than conventional produce; however, I also don’t want you to be misled, organic produce can get contaminated, too, so it also needs to be washed.

I’m also not asking whether you buy local produce from a nearby farmer, farm market, CSA, co-op, etc. because they face the same pressures to produce crops as farmers everywhere and may choose to use chemicals to boost their crop yields.  And, as I mentioned above, the may certainly be subject to contamination from environmental factors.

Here you will find the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) list of 45 fruits and vegetables where the foods with the most pesticides have lower numbers and the foods with the least pesticides have higher numbers.  You may also be familiar with their “Clean 15/Dirty Dozen” chart, which has been circulated a lot lately in the media, Facebook, Pinterest, etc.  I find these lists helpful for a number of reasons.  First of all, if you’re only able to buy some organic produce, these lists help guide you to the produce that is most contaminated conventionally, so that you can focus your organic buying on those items.  Secondly, if you’re not able to buy any organic produce, these lists help you know which fruits and vegetables need cleaned most thoroughly.

So, let’s go back to the original question.  How do you wash your fruits and vegetables?  I’ll go first.  Last year, all we did was rinse our produce for a few seconds under tap water to “wash” it…if we washed it at all before the kids got ahold of it.  Then, as I started becoming more concerned about eating pesticides/herbicides, insecticides and bacteria, I started washing all of the produce as soon as we got home from the grocery store.  I know this is a lot of work.  But, since our kids eat produce right off of the counter or directly out of the refrigerator sometimes, it is much safer for them and much faster for me when I go to cook because everything is washed and ready to go.  So, I go grocery shopping and as soon as I come home, I fill my sink with warm water and add 1/4 cup of vinegar to the sink water.  I add all my produce to the vinegar/water in the sink and let it sit there for 10 minutes or so while I put away the rest of my groceries.  Then, I remove the produce from the vinegar/water and scrub it with a potato brush as I rinse it with fresh tap water.

Here’s why, I began by reading a New York Times article that cited two scientific studies that examined the most effective ways to remove pesticides and bacteria from produce.  A group of scientists from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station compared pesticide removal by rinsing produce under tap water alone, washing produce with dish soap and rinsing, and washing produce with commercial fruit and vegetable washing products (like Fit, Healthy Harvest, Organiclean, Vegi-Clean) and rinsing.  Based on their findings, they suggest rinsing all fresh produce under tap water for a minimum of 30 seconds while rubbing it to help free pesticide residue from the surface of the produce. They also believe that water temperature, mild dishwashing detergents, and commercial fruit and vegetable cleaning products do not enhance the removal of pesticides above that of rinsing with tap water alone but rather that friction, the mechanical action of rubbing, does enhance pesticide removal.

A second group of scientists at the University of Florida Department of Microbiology and Cell Science compared reduction of bacteria/viruses on produce by washing with commercial fruit and vegetable washing products (Fit, Healthy Harvest) and water, hydrogen peroxide/water, automatic dishwashing detergent/water, liquid dishwashing detergent/water, table salt/water, and vinegar/water.  Based on their findings, they suggest washing produce with vinegar.

So, that’s how I arrived at the bottom line of removing pesticides and germs from my produce by soaking it in a vinegar solution and then rinsing it with tap water while scrubbing it for at least 30 seconds.  I also try to buy organic and locally as much as possible and to bear in mind that the studies I cited above found all of the produce they tested to have contamination within the EPA limits (not that I want my family to be eating the little amount there…so we will still wash…).

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