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8 Myths About Washing Your Produce

Lettuce being washed in the sink with splashing water

En español | Should you wash all fresh fruits and veggies before eating them? Even the organic ones? And what about that bag of “prewashed” lettuce from the supermarket — should you wash that, too?

Modern Farmer magazine chronicles many of these farm-to-table issues for consumers, and one of the website’s most popular stories in 2015 concerned whether you need to wash the fresh produce you get from the supermarket or farmers market — even from your own garden.

And by washing, we actually mean rinsing fruits or vegetables under clear running water, rubbing gently, before preparing them. That’s because produce can become contaminated in many ways, from naturally occurring microorganisms in the soil, to pesticides, to germs from handling by workers, say agriculture experts.

Here are eight common myths about washing produce:

Myth No. 1: A commercial produce wash is best.

Truth: Not really. They’re costly and not as effective as water, according to studies from the University of Maine, as the Center for Food Safety points out. In studying three commercial produce washes, researchers found that water was equally if not more effective in removing bacteria and mold.

Myth No. 2: I don’t need to wash produce if I’m going to peel it.

Truth: Yes you do. It’s easy to transfer bacteria with your knife from the peel or rind that you’re cutting to the inside of your fruits and veggies, say the government’s food safety experts. For example, a 2011 outbreak of salmonella from cantaloupe was traced to contaminants clinging to the melon’s rind and transferred to the flesh inside when the fruit was cut. A  thorough rinsing in cold, running water is best (soap isn’t necessary or recommended). Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the rind, and be sure and wash your hands with soap and warm water afterward before handling food.

Myth No. 3: To be safe, I should wash the prewashed bagged lettuce or spinach.

Truth: There’s really no need to, say experts like New York University’s Marion Nestle. Bagged lettuce or spinach labeled prewashed were given a commercial wash in chlorinated water before packaging, so rinsing it again in your kitchen isn’t going to make it any safer. Still, as my mother would say, what can it hurt? Wash it again if it makes you feel better.

Myth No. 4: I don’t have to wash organic produce because, well, it’s organic.

Truth: Sorry, but while organic produce may not have pesticides and other chemical residues, it can still pick up microorganisms that occur naturally in the soil. Plus, farmers have little control over who handles those organic fruits and veggies after they’re harvested. So be safe: Wash it like you would any other produce.

Myth No. 5: Homegrown produce doesn’t need to be washed.

Truth: Uh, yes it does. As Modern Farmer points out, the risk may be lower if you use processed soil, but it’s not nil. It’s still a good idea to wash even those lovingly grown backyard tomatoes, zucchini and other produce before you eat them.

Myth No. 6: Washing can’t remove pesticides, so why bother?

Truth: Yes it can — mostly. A three-year study by University of Connecticut researchers found rinsing under tap water significantly reduced the residue of nine of 12 pesticides typically used on a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. And water was just as effective at removal as any of four commercial produce washes that were tested. The type of pesticide that can’t be removed by rinsing is systemic pesticides that, instead of being applied to the outside skin, are soaked up by the plant’s roots and distributed inside the plant tissue. Unfortunately, consumers have no way of knowing which kinds of pesticide were used. One way of avoiding produce with the highest pesticide residue is by checking the “Dirty Dozen” list issued annually by the Environmental Working Group.

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Myth No. 7: I should peel all fruits and vegetables to avoid contamination.

Truth: Not everything needs to be peeled. Often a fruit or vegetable’s skin is rich in nutrients. An unpeeled apple, for example, has nearly double the fiber plus more vitamin A and potassium than a peeled apple. The potato peel contains 20 percent of the vegetable’s nutrients, including B vitamins and fiber. On the other hand, don’t feel bad about peeling a carrot. The fact that the peel and the underlying vegetable are the same color indicates they both have equivalent nutrients, the New York Times reported. If you don’t peel, just be sure you rinse well (and scrub, if necessary) before eating. And if you’re worried about pesticides, especially on apples, which can be heavily sprayed, buy organic.

Myth No. 8: You should wash produce as soon as you bring it home.

Truth: Nope. Bacteria can grow on produce while it’s stored in your refrigerator, so it’s best to wash produce right before you use it. Also, washing fruits and vegetables before you store them can make them spoil faster because of their damp skin.

Photo: Courtney Keating/iStock

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