The Best Ways to Wash Fruits and Vegetables

Have all those fruit and vegetable recalls got you worried? Don't avoid the produce aisle -- these tips will help prevent the spread of bacteria and other toxins

Between listeria-tainted cantaloupes and salmonella in grape tomatoes, the produce aisle has become quite a scary place. How can we be sure that what we’re eating is actually safe? I usually give fruits and vegetables a brief rinse or a quick spin in the salad spinner but given all the recent food recalls, I’m starting to rethink this laid-back approach. Is regular old water really enough?

According to the Food and Drug Administration, it is. The FDA does not recommend using soap, liquid detergent or any of the commercial fruit and vegetable washes out there. All produce should be thoroughly washed under running water, whether it’s grown conventionally or organically.

The University of Maine’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition and Cooperative Extension backed up this claim by testing three store-bought produce rinses and washes against regular tap water and distilled water. The study found that distilled water was the most effective way to remove pesticides and microbes.

Why distilled? The water is filtered and purified to remove any contaminants, so you’re washing your produce with the purest possible liquid. The researchers also said that “very clean cold tap water” can be used instead.

The key is to wash your fruits and vegetables even if you are peeling or cutting them. Slicing an unwashed cantaloupe, for example, can transfer bacteria from the outside of the melon onto the cut fruit. Thick-skinned produce such as melons or cucumbers (or vegetables that grow underground, like beets and carrots) might need an extra scrub to remove excess dirt or hard-to-remove microbes. A vegetable scrubber is the best tool for this job. The University of Maine recommends soaking produce with a lot of nooks and crannies (like cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce) for one to two minutes in clean, cold water before eating.

Once your fruits and vegetables are nice and clean, experts recommend drying them with a dishtowel or paper towel – another step I usually skip. But drying produce may help reduce any residual bacteria that might be present.

Another small but important step: be sure to wash your countertops, cutting boards and utensils with hot, soapy water after cutting and peeling produce. The FDA also recommends a solution of one teaspoon of chlorine bleach to one quart of water.

Sure, this might seem a little excessive — especially if you’re a quick-rinse-under-the-tap kind of person like me. But given the recent surge of food recalls, maybe it’s time we start handling produce differently – more like raw meat. With a few extra steps, you could prevent a serious illness or worse.

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