Washing fruits and vegetables

Best methods for reducing germs and residues on your produce.

Have you ever bought an apple from the store, gotten in your car, wiped the apple on your shirt and eaten it while you drive to your next destination? Did you wipe the apple because you thought it was dirty or just to give it that nice shine? Do you think wiping it on your shirt made it clean? While it is important to wash all produce before eating it, there is often confusion and conflicting recommendations on the best way to clean fruits and vegetables. Michigan State University Extension recommends following these simple rules when cleaning produce:

  1. The best time to wash produce is immediately before eating or cooking the product, not when it is brought home from the store. You should avoid washing and then storing produce because it creates a perfect, moist habitat for microbes to grow. This can also speed up the spoilage of produce by leaving it wet in the fridge.
  2. It is best to wash produce under cool, running water that is within 10 degrees of the temperature of the produce. Soaking produce in a sink of water is often practiced, but can lead to cross-contamination if your sink hasn’t been sanitized. Or, even if one piece of produce was contaminated, now the whole sink of water and the other produce is contaminated. Using running water only ensures that dirt and germs are washed down the drain, not pooling in the sink.
  3. Using manufactured “fruit washes,” detergents, or bleach is not recommended. These products may leave a residue, alter the quality of the product or leave an unpleasant taste. A food safety study done by Cook’s Illustrated showed that using a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water significantly reduced the number of germs on washed fruit. But, keep in mind the risks from bullet number two regarding sink cleanliness.
  4. Use a brush to clean produce with textured surfaces, such as melons, potatoes and root vegetables. Gentle brushing under running water will help remove dirt particles trapped in the crevices.
  5. Wash all fruits and vegetables, even if you’re going to peel them, an avocado for example. Not many people wash avocados because you don’t eat the peel. You do, however, cut through the peel with your knife and anything (germs and/or pesticides) on the outside of the peel will be transferred to the edible portion via your knife. Similarly, if you’re eating an orange, your hands are peeling it and then touching the edible portion, thus transferring any germs from the skin to the flesh and into your mouth.

Following these guidelines will help reduce the chance of getting a foodborne illness from fresh fruits and vegetables. Remember though, that washing only reduces the number of germs present, and proper handling, storage and cooking practices need to be maintained throughout the process. So, what about that apple you wiped on your shirt? It isn’t recommended you make a habit of that being the only method of cleaning produce, but the study mentioned above did find that as a last, or only resort wiping fruit on a clean shirt did reduce the amount of germs, just not as much as real washing.

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