Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables

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Robert Pavlis

We all wash fruits and vegetables and so it is surprising that many food blogs are giving out the wrong information about how you should wash fruits and vegetables. Why should you wash your produce? Is it a good way to reduce pesticides in your diet? Find out why and how you should be washing food.

Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables
Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables

Why Wash Fruits and Vegetables?

There are three reasons to wash fruits and vegetables:

  • remove dirt
  • remove germs
  • remove pesticides

Should berries be washed? Or do they degrade faster once wet?

Washing will definitely remove dirt and germs if done properly. What about pesticides?

Washing Off Pesticides

It is important to understand that 99.9% of the pesticides you eat are natural pesticides that the plant makes to fend off pests. These are almost exclusively inside the food. No amount of washing, with any product, will remove them. The good news is that you don’t have to remove them.

Most of the pesticides we eat are natural ones the plant produces.
Most of the pesticides we eat are natural ones the plant produces.

That means that 0.1% are man-made pesticides, both synthetic and organic. Organic food is also sprayed with pesticides that are made in factories just like every other man-made pesticide. They just happen to be approved in organic farming.

There is a wide range of man-made pesticides and they have many different chemical properties. Some dissolve in water and are therefore easy to wash off with plain water. Others wash off better in other solutions. For example, this study tested different solutions for washing organophosphorus pesticides (trichlorfon, dimethoate, dichlorvos, fenitrothion, and chlorpyrifos) off raw cucumber. “Among detergent solutions, 5% sodium carbonate solution caused the greatest loss in trichlorfon and dimethoate, and 5% sodium bicarbonate solution caused the greatest loss in dichlorvos, fenitrothion and chlorpyrifos. No one single solution is best for all pesticides.

DIY solutions like vinegar plus water or salt plus water can potentially react with the pesticide and produce a more toxic compound.

Fruits and vegetables have pores just like your skin. Soap products can get trapped in the pores and they can be just as toxic as the pesticides you are trying to remove.

For these reasons the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends washing under running warm water. It is as effective at removing pesticides as any other option including commercial washing products.

Society has been falsely conditioned to worry about pesticides on fruits and vegetables but this concern is highly exaggerated. The amount of man-made pesticide found on such food is tiny compared to natural pesticides, and neither is found in high enough concentrations to be a concern.

Having said that, there are cases of high levels of natural pesticides in food and you can read more about them in Hybrid Vegetables Can Be Toxic.

Check out this FREE 10 part Vegetable Growing Master Class.

How Dirty are the Dirty Dozen?

An organization called the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases an annual list to the 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables – the Dirty Dozen. They do an excellent job of scaring people into worrying about pesticides. How good is their analysis?

Microbe Science for Gardeners Book, by Robert Pavlis

The list changes each year, but the apple is usually at or near the top of the list. They claim that, “97 per cent of apples sampled were found to contain pesticide residues.” This testing is done by the United States Department of Agriculture who runs a “Pesticide Data Program”, and publishes the results.

In 2016, 531 samples were analyzed. How many of the 531 samples had a pesticide residue above the EPA’s tolerance level? None! The tolerance level is the safe level for apples and it has a 100-fold safety margin built in.

The most detected residue, found in 80% of samples, was diphenylamine and the EPA’s tolerance level is 10 ppm. The average detected value was 0.28 ppm.  Conclusion: there is no risk. Forbes had this to say, “The EWG analysis is egregiously misleading because it essentially counts all detections equally, ignoring what chemical it is, at what level it was detected, and how that compares to the crop-chemical-specific EPA tolerances. ”

The items on the Dirty Dozen list are not only safe to eat, but they don’t even have to be washed to remove pesticides.

Still Concerned Over Pesticides?

If the above facts have not convinced you that there is no risk with pesticides on fruits and vegetables, there are extra steps you can take (source: National Pesticide Information Center).

  • Wash fruits and vegetables even if you do not plan to eat the skin.
  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh fruits and vegetables.
  • Hold the fruit or vegetable under flowing water in a strainer. This removes more pesticide than dunking the produce.
  • Scrub firm produce like melons and potatoes with a clean brush.
  • Rub soft produce like grapes while holding them under running water to remove residues.
  • Put fragile fruits and vegetables like berries in a colander and turn it while gently spraying it with water. More on this below.
  • Discard the outer leaves of leafy produce, like lettuce and cabbage.
  • Peel produce that can be peeled, like peaches or apples.
  • Heating can help get rid of residues, but you might be getting rid of nutrients, too.
Compare different washing solution: 7 Solutions for Washing Fruits and Vegetables

Washing Off Dirt and Germs

Soil in the garden contains pathogens and dirty hands carry them into the kitchen. Touching one type of food with dirty hands can transfer pathogens to another food. Washing hands and kitchen surfaces frequently is as important and maybe more important than washing food.

Scientists have tested washing efficiency by exposing hands to contaminated ground beef followed by various washing techniques. Washing with room temperature water removed 90% of the germs while using warm water removed almost 100% of them. Gloves actually collected more germs than bare hands and washing them was less effective. The science is clear; don’t wear gloves and wash regularly with warm water.

Does soap kill germs? This is a common belief, but it is not true. Neither hand soap nor dish soap, which is actually a detergent, kills germs. Even the evidence for microbial soaps is weak. The reason soap rids your hands of microbes is that it removes some of the oils from your hand while at the same time removing the germs stuck in the oils. When you wash your hands the germs end up down the sink, but they are still alive.

Germs like Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria are a real concern on food. A tap water rinse removes germs as well as or better than a rinse using commercial products, soap solutions, bleach, baking soda or vinegar solutions.

Some people like to soak their food which works a bit different than washing under running water. A 10 minute soak in a 2.5% solution of vinegar reduces germs by 82% and is better than soaking in just water. This is a 1:1 mixture of water and household vinegar.

The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), strongly urge consumers to stick with plain running water instead of soaking. Warm water is more effective than water at room temperature. Scrubbing with a clean brush helps remove dirt.

Should I Wash Pre-Washed Produce?

Grocery stores are selling more fresh produce in a prepared format, including bagged salads and veggie trays. They are labeled as “pre-washed” or “ready-to-eat”. If you see these labels, then you can safely use the produce without further washing. Make sure it does not come into contact with unclean surfaces while you are preparing it.

Best Way to Wash Berries

Should you wash strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries? This is an ongoing debate with one side believing that washing berries is essential and the other side believing that washing harms the fruit. The claim is that they absorb too much moisture which causes them to spoil faster.

The claim that berries absorb moisture is false. If you wash them and remove surface moisture, they weigh the same before or after washing.

What is the best way to wash strawberries? This was tested by washing in different solutions and at different temperatures. The best way to wash them is with a 30 second dip in hot tap water. It removed the dirt as well as most of the molding spores. Fruit washed this way, dried and stored in the fridge lasted a full week. Unwashed berries molded in 3 days and the ones dipped in cold water lasted 5 days. Water plus baking soda made the fruit mushy. Water plus vinegar was no better than just water.

A similar test found the same results for raspberries and blackberries.

Best Way to Wash Food?

Wash hands often. Wash food before cutting it. Keep surfaces clean.

Wash fruits and vegetables in running hot water.

Eating directly from the garden without washing is unlikely to kill you and it is really the only way to enjoy a fresh tomato!

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

8 thoughts on “Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables”

  1. Very interesting about the Dirty Dozen. Based on this and other information you have provided, does this mean there’s no reason to buy organic produce and minimal washing under running water to remove visible dirt is good enough?

    Reply
  2. Its alarming how many people (especially men but also some women) who do not wash their hands after going to the toilet, horrors of horrors they then go the supermarket & pick over the fruit & veg transfering Salmonella, E. coli O157, and norovirus that cause diarrhea to the fruit & veg. & don’t get me started on the germs & bacteria on shopping trolleys especially the type of trolly where babies sit in the trolley in their diaper nappies near the handle. Safer & more hygenic to grow your own or buy wrapped fruit & veg.

    Reply
  3. Always appreciate your posts. Thanks. Regarding your comments about the EPA and FDA: It all depends on how trustworthy one considers the EPA/FDA to be, and whether their tolerances are acceptable to someone with a higher bar.

    Reply
    • “someone with a higher bar” – but it is only logical to have a higher bar if there is data that supports that higher bar. Lacking data, it is then just baseless belief.

      Reply
  4. I love all of your information, but this was awesome! Extremely useful and eye opening, to say the least. Thank YOU! (I shared with numerous friends)

    Reply

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