8 Important Tips for Prepping Fruits and Veggies, According to Microbiologists

published Nov 30, 2021
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

Gone are the days of disinfecting our groceries. But long before the pandemic affected all of our lives, we were told to wash our fruits and vegetables before preparing them. With all this extra time at home still a reality, we’ve been pondering lots of things — including (but not limited to) whether or not commercial fruit and vegetable washes actually work better than plain ol’ water when it comes to cleaning produce. To get all of the facts, we spoke to some microbiologists about the effectiveness of fruit and veggie washes. Here’s everything we learned.

Credit: Photography: Tara Donne; Food Styling: Cyd McDowell

Explained: Dirt, Bacteria, and Pesticides

First, there’s a difference between dirt, bacteria, and pesticides! Dirt, or other visible debris, will likely accumulate on your produce — it happens naturally as produce gets transferred from farm warehouses to the grocery store to your home. We’re talking about actual dirt (you know, from the ground!), or other foreign particles, like pollen, dust, or random fuzzies. “Clearly, if there is visible dirt, that should be washed off,” explains Marilyn Roberts, who has a PhD in microbiology and works as professor of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.

The main reason for washing produce is to remove the things we can’t see, says Dr. Emily Ledgerwood, who has a PhD in immunology and microbiology and is a biologist who teaches at Le Moyne College. “While most bacteria are completely harmless, pathogens (microbes that can cause disease) can be deposited on the surface at many instances before it arrives in your kitchen,” she says. These disease-causing microbes can be picked up either from the soil or along the journey from field to produce display. Can bacteria on produce make you sick? It could: If given the right conditions (and the right environment), germs will multiply and might make you sick. But! There’s no reason to panic. When produce is rinsed thoroughly, water can remove 98 percent of bacteria.

Now, onto pesticides. “How harmful a pesticide is will depend on what the pesticide is and how much of an exposure an individual has. The effects, both acute and long-term, also will depend on the pesticide,” Ledgerwood explains. It’s important to also note that the United States Department of Agriculture considers our fruits and veggies to have low to no pesticide residues. The Environmental Protection Agency states that trace amounts of detectable pesticides are not harmful, yet many people understandably are still uneasy about consuming them. So, if you’re really worried about pesticide exposure, purchasing organic produce can help reduce any risks.

With all of this said, it’s important to note that a “dirty” piece of produce doesn’t necessarily mean you have to keep away — after all, you’ve likely eaten an apple straight from the tree, without becoming ill. Still, it’s a good idea to clean your produce before consuming it, which brings us to our next point.

Credit: Joe Lingeman/Kitchn; Food Stylist: CC Buckley/Kitchn

Should You Use a Store-Bought Produce Wash?

The agriculture industry does its best to keep produce safe and clean from the farm to the supermarket. Still, it gives people peace of mind to thoroughly clean produce once they bring everything home. So, should you buy and use fruit and veggie washes? It turns out, the short answer is no. The easiest solution may be to use plain ol’ water.

Studies have shown that the washes on the market haven’t been proven to be any more effective than water alone. The majority of these products list water as their first ingredient. While the washes all claim to “clean” and “cut through” grime and wax, the vinegar, baking soda, or ethyl alcohol in their ingredients list is likely the cause for that.

Read more: How To Make Your Own Fruit and Veggie Wash

Which brings us to homemade washes. Vinegar is known to be an acetic acid and an antimicrobial, which makes it a potent cleaner. It’s effective at dissolving dirt and chemicals on the skin of fruits and veggies. And your stash of white distilled vinegar will cost you less than a store-bought produce wash. That’s why Roberts says, “Knowing that (homemade) vinegar washes work, I would not buy these products.” Ledgerwood opts out of using commercial produce washes, too.

Roberts points out that if produce is infected with a pathogen, such as Listeria monocytogenes or Salmonella, and is consumed raw, no amount of cleaning — and no miracle product — will help: “Washing things like lettuce does not adequately get rid of the bacteria, such as E. coli.”

Still, don’t give up on consuming fruits and veggies! They’re an important and nutritious part of a healthy diet — and they taste so good! Luckily, Roberts and Ledgerwood have given us eight practical tips to reduce bacteria and debris on our produce.

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8 Microbiologist-Approved Tips for Buying and Prepping Fruits and Veggies

While both of our microbiologists say commercial fruit and veggie washes are an unnecessary purchase, there are a handful of things you can do when shopping and prepping your produce. We asked Roberts and Ledgerwood for their best practices. Let’s take a look!

1. Avoid pre-cut produce.

Roberts points out that pre-cut produce has been handled by more people than intact fruit and veggies. Plus, they can be trickier to rinse or wash clean. And they tend to cost more, anyway!

2. Buy local.

An unexpected benefit of shopping local is that your produce may be less likely to contain contaminants. Why? The more hands that touch your produce, the greater risk of contamination. Put simply: Food that goes through a shorter supply chain and travels a shorter distance is exposed to an overall lesser risk.

3. Avoid the “Dirty Dozen” and, when possible, opt for organic instead.

“Not all produce is treated [with pesticides] uniformly,” notes Ledgerwood, citing the Environmental Working Group Dirty Dozen list as a helpful resource for navigating conventional versus organic fruits and veggies. The items on the Dirty Dozen list, such as strawberries and spinach, are most likely to be heavily treated with pesticides — and are most challenging to clean thoroughly. She says, “In our house, we always buy these items as organic — especially because some of these can be challenging to wash effectively.”

4. Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after preparing raw fruits and veggies.

This piece of advice comes straight from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration: The truth is, germs from unwashed hands can easily transfer to foods and drinks while people prepare or consume them, so it’s super important to wash your hands thoroughly because you may unknowingly be spreading contaminants as you touch various surfaces in your house. (Just the kitchen sink alone can be home to plenty of germs!) Use warm water, an ample amount of soap, and suds up for 20 seconds.

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Rinse and scrub your produce.

Using running water, rinse the produce, and gently scrub it. You can use a clean cloth, your hands or — for firm produce, like melons — a dedicated scrubber. Do not use a brush on softer produce because the brush can actually push debris further into the flesh. Plus, you don’t want to scrub your potatoes with the same brush you use for pots and pans because you may risk spreading around contaminants.

How will you know when the produce is actually “clean”? To properly remove bacteria, fruits and veggies should be scrubbed under water for two or more minutes, Ledgerwood explains. Rinsing with a vegetable brush and drying can help, especially to reduce microbes. It’s the act of friction that’s important for the removal of microbes, a process known as de-germing, she says.

6. Use a DIY produce cleaner.

Roberts says that vinegar is a tried-and-true food-safe cleaning agent. So, if you want to give your fruit and veggies a more through cleaning than washing with just water, an inexpensive homemade fruit and veggie wash can do the trick. Many DIY recipes call for vinegar, which again, is an acetic acid and a terrific cleaner known to easily dissolve away debris. While a DIY wash can’t kill E. coli, Roberts says it “does reduce spoilage due to fungi and bacteria.”

If the smell of vinegar is too off-putting for you, Ledgerwood suggests baking soda as another homemade alternative. “Baking soda washes would be an easy and effective option for those particularly ‘dirty’ items,” she says, citing a study from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. To do this, Ledgerwood says produce should soak in a mixture of baking soda and water for at least two minutes (1 teaspoon baking soda in 2 cups of water) before giving a good final rinse in tap water. This should be done as soon as items are brought home, rather than just prior to consumption.

7. Peel fruits and veggies.

After you’ve rinsed and scrubbed your produce, peel it. Some items obviously must be peeled before eating (bananas, for example!), so that’s a no-brainer. But if you’re particularly worried about stowaways on your veggies, consider peeling your carrots and potatoes. You’ll lose a little fiber, but reduce your risk. Just remember, if you decide to peel produce, rinse your veggies before you peel, to avoid transferring debris from the knife onto the inner flesh. For leafy greens, like head lettuce, the FDA recommends removing the outermost leaves — they carry the greatest risk of contaminants.

Credit: Shelly Westerhausen

8. Cook your produce.

Cooking, especially at high heat, will obliterate any potential contaminants in your fruit and vegetables. Roberts explains, “Some of the pathogens cannot easily be removed by washes or wiping, as they are internal, and cooking is the only thing that can work.” She points out that with foods meant to be consumed raw, washing is still your best bet. 

How do you clean your fruit and veggies? Tell us in the comments below.