Meat and seafood are frequently thought of as the sole culprits of foodborne illnesses. Indeed, undercooked meat, poultry and fish can carry bacteria that will make you sick. But recent nationwide food recalls shine light on just how many fruits and vegetables can be dangerous, even deadly. Romaine lettuce, melons and cucumbers have all been tied to outbreaks of foodborne illnesses caused by E.coli and Salmonella. This dinner staple is the biggest culprit of foodborne illness.
You can take steps to make your food safer for you and anyone who dines with you. Washing and scrubbing produce—and at the right times—can remove particles and bacteria, and it may prevent potentially dangerous rot. Read on to learn what happens when you eat produce without washing and when you should wash for the most benefit.
When produce is plucked from the ground or off a bush, vine or tree, you and the farmers aren’t the only people touching it. “Not only does produce have to travel to the store, but it also has lots of hands touching it once it’s in the store,” says Samantha Presicci, RD, lead registered dietitian at Snap Kitchen. “Think about when you pick produce. Most of us pick up the produce, feel it and make sure it’s ripe, after all, you can quickly pick the perfect melon by knowing if it’s ripe or not. That’s a lot of contact, and there’s no way to know if those that have touched it before you were sick or even if they washed their hands after using the bathroom.”
Bacteria from the farm can survive transportation and storage, which could spell trouble for your tummy. “Produce has many opportunities in which it can be contaminated, through the transportation process, from feces from the ground, or during food preparation. Sometimes dirty produce can result in foodborne sickness. We have seen recent outbreaks of veggies with E. coli, Salmonella and more,” Janette Nesheiwat, MD, says. “This can result in nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramps and fever, along with dehydration.”
Most fresh food is grown outdoors, so all the elements of nature can come into contact with your food before you do. “Often produce contains tiny insects or slugs which should be cleaned off before eating as they may taste bad,” says Elizabeth Girouard, certified holistic health coach and founder of Zing Meals, a gourmet meals business. “Generally, your stomach acid will handle them, but it may change the flavor of what you are eating.” These genius storage tips will help you keep all fruits and vegetables fresher for longer.
Both conventionally-grown and organic produce are treated with herbicides and pesticides. The type that’s used varies based on how the farmer is growing it. These chemicals can linger on fruit and vegetable skin. Washing will remove some of them and prevent them from ending up in your body.
“Most produce is sprayed with herbicides and pesticides to keep the bugs away. Some of the residual pesticides that remain on the outside of the produce can be washed away with water, or a mixture of water and baking soda or vinegar,” Girouard says. “Many pesticides can be harmful if ingested in large quantities, so washing helps to remove the surface chemicals.”
Fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in dirt or on bushes, vines or trees. That means they come into contact with soil, sand, grit and other many natural products that might not be harmful but certainly won’t taste great. “Although some of this dirt isn’t necessarily harmful, it leaves your salads or meals with a horrible, gritty taste,” Girouard says. You should also wash pre-washed veggies—yes, really—for this gross reason.
When it’s time to wash, don’t just rinse the outside. Dirt and bugs can find their way inside leaves or between stalks. Green onions, for example, are essentially long straws that can trap bugs and dirt. If you just rinse the bulbs, you’ll bypass some of the areas that need to be washed. The same is true for leafy greens like heads of lettuce and kale. Dirt and bugs can sneak in between the leaves, so you’ll want to be sure to rinse around each leaf. Go ahead and remove the outer most leaves on each head, too. Those leaves are likely toughest and may have cuts and bruises from transportation anyway. You may be making these produce mistakes and not even know it.
If you plan to not eat the skins, you should still wash them before you cut into the food. This goes for foods like avocados, watermelons and even root vegetables. “For those who think, ‘But, I’m not eating the skin,’ I’ve got two words for you: cross-contamination,” says Candess Zona-Mendola, a food safety advocate and editor of MakeFoodSafe.com. “With every cut of the peeling knife [through the unwashed skin into the edible portion], you are creating a pathway for bacteria and pesticides.”
Moisture on the skins of fruits and vegetables is rarely a good thing. Even the produce know that, as their skins are often designed to help repel water while they’re growing. But if the food gets wet—perhaps from washing when you get home from the store—you could be inviting bacteria. Moist spots can quickly soften fruit or vegetable skin. That attracts bacteria and bugs, both of which can be problematic for food safety. Rot can ultimately ruin the food too soon.
Bruises and tiny surface cuts are just another way that bacteria get into the food. A porous surface or a crack is like an open wound for bacteria. You can cut away the damaged part, but you’ll need to make sure you wash the surface before you do. If there are a lot of bruises and cuts or nicks, a surface rinse is unlikely to help at all.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends you wash all produce under cold, running water for one to two minutes just before you intend to eat it. And before you rinse your food, go ahead and wash your hands with soap and water, too. This helps remove any bacteria or viruses you have on your hands that could be transferred to the food.
If the food has a harder surface, you can use a brush or gently rub the produce with your hand. Produce washes, soaps and bleach aren’t necessary. A study from the University of Maine found that three commercial produce washes were equally effective as distilled water at removing pesticides and microbes; in some cases, the distilled water was actually more effective. Dry the produce thoroughly with a clean dish towel or paper towel. Then eat or cook right away.
For all your washing, of course, the truth is you probably won’t be able to remove everything that’s potentially harmful. In fact, a 2017 study in the journal Food Science & Nutrition found that E. coli remained on romaine lettuce and a ready-to-eat mixed salad blend, despite washing. Washing did reduce the number of bacteria, but it was still detectable and could have been enough to make people sick.
“Even though you can get ill from eating properly washed produce, it’s still a much safer option to do it than eating produce that wasn’t washed,” Lina Velikova, MD, PhD, says. “Make smart choices and take time to build a safety net when it comes to your health!” Find out the 12 surprising foods you must wash before cooking or eating.