When it comes to fruits and veggies, it’s never totally clear how deeply they need to be cleaned to be safe to eat. When something is covered in visible dirt—like carrots, potatoes, and other things typically pulled from the ground—I always instinctively give them a good scrub before I cook with them. But when something appears to be relatively clean, like apples or berries, I’m never sure if a simple rinse is enough or if I technically should be doing more.
So we decided to break down what might actually be on unwashed produce, how much good washing really does, and how to clean different types of produce effectively.
Here’s what could be on your produce before you wash it.
Even when a piece of produce appears to be squeaky clean, it probably isn’t, Philip Tierno, Ph.D., a clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells SELF. Just because there’s no visible dirt doesn’t mean it’s not covered in microbes and potentially harmful pathogens that it picked up somewhere along the way.
The FDA reports that around 48 million people contract foodborne illnesses from food products contaminated with harmful pathogens each year, most commonly listeria, E. coli, and salmonella bacteria as well as viruses like hepatitis A and norovirus.
The good news is that there are agricultural standards in place to minimize the amount of pathogens entering the produce system, Randy Worobo, Ph.D., professor of food microbiology at Cornell University, tells SELF, so the odds of actually buying contaminated produce in the first place are typically pretty low. But while the chance you’ll contract a foodborne illness from fresh produce is relatively slim, it is always a possibility, depending on what your fruits and veggies came into contact with on their journey to you. Things like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria may be present on produce as a result of poor farming practices, but it’s also possible for produce to be contaminated with a virus that was spread by humans, like norovirus and hepatitis A.
“There’s a whole host of people that handle raw fruits and vegetables,” Tierno says, “including the growers, the pickers, the truckers—many hands which contain different types of germs, potentially pathogens.”
And if you’re worried about pesticides, know that the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration work together to first establish what level of pesticide residue is safe for human consumption, and then enforce those rules (if you’re interested in getting more details on that, you can read this recent FDA report. Rinsing your produce will remove some of that residue, Worobo says, adding that after washing there may still be some pesticide residue on your produce, but the amount is so small that it doesn’t pose any real threat.
How much does rinsing really do?
The reality is that washing produce with water is usually enough to remove most stray pathogens, and at the end of the day, consuming something with a few germs on it likely won’t make you sick anyway, so you’ll never know the difference. Unless you are immunocompromised, your body does a good job of dealing with a few unsavory microbes here and there, says Worobo.
When it comes to big outbreaks, like the recent romaine lettuce one, it’s sort of out of your hands as the consumer. Outbreaks typically depend way more on whether or not farmers are using proper practices, says Worobo. If a food has become so contaminated that it’s making people sick, chances are there are a lot of pathogens on it—way more than normal—and those pathogens are likely deeply entrenched in the fruit or veggie, versus just sitting on the surface. In these cases, rinsing won’t be enough to get them off and make them safe, Worobo says, which is why health officials err on the side of caution and simply advise consumers to throw out potentially contaminated foods. (Worobo also says it’s a good idea to avoid buying anything with a visible bruise or cut because that can be an entry point for pathogens to infect the produce from the inside.)
Here’s how you should be washing *most* of your produce.
For the majority of produce, just rinsing it off with water and rubbing it with your hands is sufficient. In fact, in most cases—we’re talking your average fruit or vegetable that was grown and handled properly and may have just a few surface germs on it—it’s enough to get rid of 90 to 99 percent of the bacteria present, according to the FDA. (If something is recalled because of an outbreak, always follow instructions to throw it away.)
But first things first: Before you do anything with your produce, make sure to wash your hands. “Whatever bacteria are present on your hands will easily be transferred to the food you are preparing unless you wash them first,” Mary Liz Wright, M.S., food safety expert and nutrition and wellness educator at the University of Illinois Extension College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, tells SELF. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap under warm running water to be on the safe side.
Also, no matter what fruit or vegetable you’re cooking with, Worobo says, you should wait to wash it until just before you eat it. Washing produce adds excess moisture and creates an environment that’s more conducive to breeding harmful bacteria, especially in the case of fruits and vegetables that soak up a lot of water, he says. That’s why, in general, it’s best to avoid washing anything right when you get home from the store. If you’ve purchased something at the supermarket that’s particularly dirty and you’d rather wash it before storing it, just be sure to dry it thoroughly before transferring it to the refrigerator, says Wright.
Then, usually, all you need to do is rinse your fruits and veggies under cold running water and give them a good rub. There’s no need to whip up a vinegar wash or waste money on a fancy produce spray. In fact, the FDA actually does not recommend using any kind of soaps, detergents, or special washes to clean produce.
Even though produce with hard exteriors or peels—like melons, pineapples, and oranges—don’t seem as though they need to be washed, they should be, says Worobo. That’s because “as you cut into the fruit, you could force the surface bacteria into the flesh of the fruit.” Always wash hard-skinned produce or anything with a peel *before* you start peeling so there’s less of a chance you’ll transfer bacteria from the outside to the inside. The FDA recommends using a clean produce brush (like this one) to effectively scrub any potential pathogens from the skin.
You don’t need to worry about washing any prewashed ready-to-eat items, though. According to the FDA, if a package states that the contents are prewashed, there’s no need to waste time (or water!) rinsing them again.
These fruits and veggies are the exception to the rinse ’n’ rub rule:
1. Root veggies
When it comes to produce that’s pulled directly from the ground and is usually covered in soil—such as potatoes, carrots, and any other kind of root veggie—a rinse and gentle rub often isn’t enough to completely remove dirt or soil, which can be a source of pesticides and additional bacteria including pathogens, says Worobo. You can use a dish rag or a sponge to scrub them clean, but Wright says that no tool does the job better than a vegetable brush with firm bristles. Using the brush, scrub while holding the item under running water, making sure to brush off any visible dirt, and you’ll be good to go, she says.
It’s no secret that berries are extremely fragile. In most cases I can’t even make it home from the supermarket without smushing some of them. With that in mind, it’s important to be extremely gentle with them—so, the opposite of what you should do with the root veggies. The easiest way to wash berries is to place them in a colander and rinse them under a slow stream of running water.
You should absolutely never *soak* berries, because they act like a sponge and soak up a lot of water, which negatively impacts both their flavor and texture. You also don’t want to remove stems before washing (in the case of strawberries) as that will create another way for the berry to absorb water, Wright explains.
3. Leafy greens
The tricky thing with lettuce or other leafy greens is that soil can get stuck on each individual leaf, so a simple rinse usually won’t be enough to ensure they’re all totally clean. Instead, Worobo says it’s better to fill a bowl with cold water and gently toss the leaves back and forth in it until you can’t find anymore dirt, because this method allows you to ensure that all the soil is totally gone. Then, give it one last rinse under running water to ensure everything you don’t want to be eating gets washed down the drain. And if the lettuce you purchase has been recalled due to a contamination, simply throw it out—washing it will not be enough to prevent you from getting sick.