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How to Properly Wash Fruits & Vegetables: Clean & Bacteria-Free

We all know that fruits and veggies are an important part of our diets and that we should eat them every single day. However, it’s not hard to overlook washing them and making sure that all pesticides and harmful bacteria are long gone.1 Especially with a very busy schedule, thoroughly cleaning off your produce can seem like the last thing you want to do.

Pesticides are chemicals used on farms to kill off and control agricultural pests that pose a threat to crops and livestock. More than one billion tons of pesticides are used in America every year. In fact, in the U.S., the pesticide business is a 12.5 billion dollar industry.2

While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspects pesticide residue levels on homegrown fruits and vegetables, they expect a very small percent (around 1%) of imported produce. Unfortunately, low inspection rates of produce coming from other countries to the U.S. have few incentives for compliance to the FDA’s pesticide residue levels. 3

9 Tips To Properly Wash Fruits and Vegetables

Since the soil or water where your fruits and veggies are grown can contain harmful bacteria, it is important to wash your produce the right way. Contamination can also occur after produce is harvested, when it’s being stored or prepared. Consumption of contaminated produce can lead to food poisoning and other food-borne illnesses. While we all know we should wash the produce as best as is possible, the most important things to remember are listed at the top, since it isn’t always practical to have numerous steps to follow.

Take a look at these important guidelines to wash your produce effectively to eliminate harmful bacteria:

  1. Wash your own hands. For about 20 to 30 (about the length it takes to sing Happy Birthday) seconds with warm water and soap, wash your hands before and after touching any produce.
  2. Clean all fruits and veggies under cold running water, thoroughly, before consuming, preparing, or cutting it up. Never use soap, detergent, or even store-bought produce washes. Stick to water.
  3. For fruits like apples, pears, and peaches, that you often peel before eating or using in recipes, be sure to rinse them first anyway. This will help to avoid bringing any bacteria onto the knife you use to cut it.
  4. Dry produce after you’ve washed it. Use a dry paper towel or cloth to rid your produce of any lingering bacteria or dirt.
  5. If you have enough time, you can go further with these steps:

  6. Invest in a produce brush. You can use it for harder produce, like cucumbers, to scrub their surface and to remove microbes (tiny molecules such as things like bacteria and parasites). Make sure the brush is clean.
  7. Be sure to wash your countertops and utensils. After you have washed and/or peeled produce, and before cutting and chopping, clean the area where you are working, in order to prevent the potential spread of bacteria from the raw produce.
  8. Spray your more fragile produce. Foods like raspberries have a tendency to fall apart if placed under running water, so it is important to instead spray them with water to clean them.
  9. Soak certain produce in water for a couple of minutes. Some foods like broccoli and cauliflower have tougher areas to reach and clean at one time. Soak them in cold clean water instead.
  10. Fill a spray bottle with water on your way out the door, to clean your apples or other fruits at work or on the go.4

Are There Any Exceptions to the Rules?

Some may think organic fruits and veggies bought from local farmers markets do not need to be washed. The organic food label does not translate to “contaminant-free.” While organic produce is grown 95 percent free of synthetic chemicals and fertilizers, contamination can still happen, especially in fruits and vegetables without a tough outer skin. And if you think about, organically grown produce has to leave the farm to get to the store or market, and chances are a few hands will touch it before it makes it into your grocery bag. Washing them at home thoroughly will help guarantee bacteria- and pesticide- free produce.

However, when produce such as bagged spinach, kale, or lettuce says, “pre-washed” on the label, it is safe to eat or cook it without washing again if you are comfortable with it.

Make clean-produce guidelines part of your daily regime, and you will continue to reap all of the nutritious benefits fruits and vegetables have to offer, sans any lurking, harmful bacteria.

Show 4 References

  1. Raw Produce: Selecting & Serving It Safely. US Food and Drug Administration. Aug 2013.
  2. Park A, Kim YJ, Choi EM, Brown MT, Han T. A novel bioassay using root re-growth in Lemna. AquatToxicol. 2013;140-141C:415-424.
  3. Neff RA, Hartle JC, Laestadius LI, Dolan K, Rosenthal AC, Nachman KE. A comparative study of allowable pesticide residue levels on produce in the United States. Global Health. 2012;8:2.
  4. Bolton, J. Bushway, A, Crowe, K, El-Begearmi, M. Best Ways To Wash Fruits and Vegetables. University of Maine, Aug 2013.

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9 Comments

  • Carlos says:

    Hi Caroline,
    Good article, thank you. What about using vinegar and water, 3 cups of water 1 cup of vinegar to spray the produce?

    Thank you.

  • Justin says:

    Sorry, but water wont remove the pesticides. If you are using only water, you're still eating produce with pesticides. You need to use soap or detergent. If it came off with water, than farmers would have to apply pesticides after each rainfall. There are pesticides with chemical stickers that are insoluble in water.

    • Caroline Young says:

      Hi there, While it is true that most pesticides won't completely eliminated by just water, it will help to limit bacteria exposure and help to remove some pesticides that you can actually scrub off physically. Thanks for your comment.

  • Emanuel says:

    "scrub their surface and to remove microbes (tiny molecules containing things like bacteria and parasites)". I am sorry, but could someone explain to me how do molecules contain bacteria and parasites? I was under the impression a single cellular organism is comprised of different macro-molecules and molecules, not the other way around... let alone pluricellular organisms like parasites...

    I reckon this article is a bit exaggerated. We have an immune system to protect us from bacteria, and exposure to some bacteria even increases it's robustness. As for the pesticides and fertilizers, as Justin mentioned, it really won't do much difference simply washing the produce in water, the foolproof method would be peeling whatever you can, or simply buy organic, biologically grown produce. In any event you must know that invariably bacteria and synthetic chemicals will be consumed, unless you grow you own stuff and take all the precautions...

    • Caroline Young says:

      Hi Emanuel. Tiny molecules, such as things like bacteria and parasites, is what was meant by that statement. Thank you for the correction..

      Also, while our immune systems are built in to shield us from bacteria naturally, the types of bacteria they are exposed to in the environment do play a key role in determining the reaction to specific bacteria. It's important to take as many steps as possible (especially with those who have compromised immune systems--elderly, obese, etc.) to protect and maybe even enhance the immune system. So, washing produce is a step to take in that direction. While buying organic obviously significantly lowers pesticide exposure risk, not everyone can afford it. Read my article about what organic foods are most important to buy here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/builtlean/best-food-to-buy-organic_b_3779168.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living.

      Thanks for your comment.

    • Caroline says:

      Hi Emanuel, what was meant by the statement about molecules was, tiny molecules such as things like bacteria and parasites, not molecules containing them. Thank you for the correction.

      Our immune systems are there to protect us from bacteria, but the types of bacteria and the environment they are exposed plays a big role in determining one's reaction to a certain bacteria or pesticide. So, it's important to take as many steps as you possibly can to protect the immune system, and maybe even enhance it. Washing produce is an effective step to take, especially if a person is unable to buy organic fruits and veggies. Read here in my article about organic foods, and the ones that you should always try to buy organic: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/builtlean/best-food-to-buy-organic_b_3779168.html?utm_hp_ref=healthy-living.

      Thanks for your input.

    • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

      Thanks for pointing this out, Emanuel. We're going to look into it and get back to you and possibly update the article if necessary.

      • Peter says:

        Guys, any update on this? This is a pretty important topic. Can you share your thoughts on whether washing in water helps at all in case of produce covered in pesticides? What about organic produce, I understand it's also covered with some stuff?

        • Marc Perry, CSCS, CPT says:

          @Peter - I'm going to email our team and see what they say.

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