Vegetable washes, vinegar, distilled water, tap water, soap—what is the best way to wash fruits and vegetables?
What is it you are trying to remove? First, there are food-borne bacteria that could make you sick such as E-coli and Salmonella. These outbreaks sometimes make the news and are managed in the U.S. by The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and in Canada by The Public Health Agency of Canada.
Many times, contamination happens in the home when raw meat comes in contact with raw fruits or veggies from an unclean counter top or cutting board. But other times, contamination happens on the farm. Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated while in the field with E. coli for example, by improperly composted manure, contaminated water, wildlife or poor hygiene of farm workers.
Second, there are chemicals applied by the farmer, collectively known as ‘pesticides’. There are different classes and it’s easy to interpret what they are for:
- Fungicides: kill fungus and mold
- Herbicides: kill weeds
- Insecticides: kill insects
- Rodenticide: kills rodents
- Pesticide: kill pests (but this term is also used by many to mean all of the above)
Wax is the third item on the surface of your produce. I discovered a lot about wax on produce, so much so, that I am creating an entire blog post on it just for you! Stay tuned! In short, wax is not as bad as I used to think it was.
Mold is the fourth item you will want to remove from produce. Mold is in the fungus family and mold spores are transported by air, water or insects. Mold growth is encouraged by warm and humid conditions. Many crops at “pick-your-own” farms are routinely sprayed with fungicide after rainfall.
The CDC and the Public Health Agency in Canada, both recommend washing produce. I looked around the internet for evidence of various techniques and the following list is the result (references are listed below). I assembled this from various piece-meal sources as I wasn’t able to find one study that compared all the methods and looked at bacteria, chemical residues, wax and mold.
You and Your Kitchen:
- Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after preparing food.
- Clean your counter top, cutting boards and utensils after peeling produce and before cutting and chopping.
Detergent or Bleach:
- Do not wash produce with soaps or detergents as these can add residues.
- Detergent and bleach can also be absorbed into the fruit or vegetable.
- For produce with thick skin, such as potatoes, use a vegetable brush to help wash away hard-to-remove microbes.
- After washing, dry with clean paper towel, this can remove more bacteria.
- Rubbing a waxed fruit like an apple with your hands or a cloth will remove wax.
Soaking Versus Running Water:
- Produce with a lot of nooks and crannies like cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce should be soaked for 1 to 2 minutes. This recommendation is contradicted by some sources who recommended only running water rinses because of the risk of cross contamination from the sink, so I suggest make sure your sink is clean first, then rinse after the soak.
- Some produce such as raspberries should not be soaked in water, instead put fragile produce in a colander and spray it with distilled or tap water.
Re-Wash the Pre-Washed:
- Do NOT rewash packaged products labeled “ready-to-eat”, “washed” or “triple washed”. Washing these can actually introduce new contaminants.
- Vegetable rinses do not remove any more contaminants than distilled water.
- Save your money and use distilled water or cold running tap water.
Vinegar Spray and Soak:
- A solution of 3 parts water:1 part vinegar applied from a spray bottle can remove more bacteria than water alone.
- Vinegar will also remove wax.
- It was not possible to find a scientific reference on this, but many websites recommend vinegar and water and lots of bloggers gave testimonials for this one: to prevent mold growth on berries soak your berries in a solution of 1 part vinegar to 10 parts water. Then rinse and eat or refrigerate. (This contradicts other recommendations that state delicate fruit like berries should not be soaked and to wash just before eating.) The anecdotal evidence was strong for this one and vinegar is safe, so I am including it on my list. Plus, I tried it myself and I’m still standing
Thick Skins Need Washing Too:
- You may not be used to washing your bananas, oranges, melons and avocados, but these need to be washed too.
- Cutting through an unwashed melon can drag bacteria from the outside of the fruit into the flesh.
- Discard outer leaves of veggies like lettuce, cabbage etc.
Organic Versus Conventional:
- Organically-grown fruits and vegetables have less synthetic chemical residue, but can still be exposed to microbes. They are probably touched by just as many people before you eat them as conventional so organic still needs to be washed.
- If you find yourself hankering for a piece of fruit but there is no running water in sight, it’s still beneficial to do the ol’ sleeve rub prior to eating….provided of course that your shirt is clean.
Discard or Cut Away:
- Remove any bruised areas on produce as bacteria hang out here.
- Don’t try to salvage soft fruits and vegetables with high moisture that have mold (for example, cucumbers, peaches, tomatoes).
- Hard vegetables (for example, cabbage, bell peppers, carrots) can still be used after you cut off at least 1 inch around and below the mold spot. Be sure to keep the knife out of the mold so you don’t cross-contaminate.
- If visiting a pick-your-own farm, call ahead and find out when/if they sprayed. Pesticides break down after they are sprayed, so the longer you wait to harvest after the spray the lower the residue level will be.
- In the case of strawberries and other produce that get regular fungicide application after rainfall, pay attention to the weather report and call before you pick.
- Don’t forget to wash your reusable cloth shopping bags.
Enjoy beautiful fresh produce and know that all my sources agreed water, a scrub brush and vinegar are your main defenses against dirt, bacteria, pesticide residue, wax and mold. The only sources that disagreed were the ones selling vegetable rinses.