The Proper Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables, According to a Food Safety Expert

published Jan 14, 2023
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When you get home from the grocery store and begin sorting and organizing your haul — do you also wash your produce before putting it away? I’ve always been one to rinse, soak, and lightly dry my fruits and vegetables before storing them, but after watching so many videos online suggesting that you need to clean your produce with vinegar or a store-bought or DIY produce wash concoction, I began to wonder if I was really getting rid of all the dirt (and potential bugs!) in the best way possible. 

In my forage for information, I reached out to Michelle Smith, Ph.D., a senior policy analyst in the division of produce safety at the FDA. With 25 years in the industry, Smith was able to share some vital thoughts on the matter. Read on to get answers from three common questions.

Why do you have to wash your produce?

“Fresh fruits and vegetables are part of a healthy and nutritious diet, however, harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where produce grows can come in contact with fruits and vegetables and contaminate them,” says Smith, making it incredibly important to wash your produce when you get home from the store.

Bacteria can find its way onto produce at the point of harvest, during storage, or even at preparation, adds Smith. Additionally, since produce is often consumed raw, it doesn’t have the crucial step of cooking which can kill off harmful bacteria. “Therefore, it is important to wash produce before feeding it to yourself or your family,” she says. “Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, it is still important to wash produce first so dirt and bacteria are not transferred from the surface when peeling or cutting produce.”

How do you properly wash fruits and vegetables?

Smith explains that there is actually a proper method to follow that’s not only the safest but also the most effective way to wash your fruits and vegetables. Despite what videos tell you, it can be potentially harmful to use formulas or products to wash your produce. The best way to safely wash your fruits and vegetables is extremely simple: All you need is water.

“Washing fruit and vegetable surfaces thoroughly under clean running water should reduce any potential contamination from soil, residues, or microbes,” says Smith. “We don’t recommend using vinegar or store-bought washes to wash your fruits and vegetables. Think about it: Produce is porous. Soaps and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables and can make you sick, which is what we are trying to avoid in the first place with washing.”

Smith adds that the safety of store-bought produce washes residue hasn’t been evaluated and its effectiveness at removing microbial contaminants hasn’t been tested or standardized either.

To wash firmer fruits, like melons and cucumbers, Smith shares that a produce brush is a good tool to use. Simply scrub and rinse under water. “After washing you can dry your produce with a clean rag or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be on the surface,” she says.

How can I make my produce last longer?

If you want to increase the longevity of your fruits and vegetables, Smith has these “wiser buying” tips:

  • Choose produce that’s not bruised or damaged.
  • If you purchase pre-cut, bagged, or packaged produce, select only those that are refrigerated or surrounded by ice.
  • Avoid contaminating produce during handling and preparation. For instance, bag and keep produce separately from meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • Begin and end with clean hands when preparing fresh produce. This means washing for at least 20 seconds before and after handling.
  • Don’t rewash already pre-washed produce. There is some concern that a home wash can bring on more risks, shares Smith, so an additional wash for bags labeled “pre-washed” or “triple-washed” isn’t totally necessary.

Another thing to consider is proper storage, says Smith, which can affect both the quality and safety of your food. She recommends storing perishable fruits and vegetables (such as strawberries, lettuce, herbs, and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Make sure to refrigerate all produce that’s pre-cut or packaged, too! If you’re not sure if your items can be refrigerated, ask a grocery store worker for help. 

This post was originally published on Apartment Therapy. Read it there: The Best Way to Wash Your Fruits and Vegetables, According to a Food Safety Expert