Should You Wash or Peel Your Produce?
What you learn may surprise you
The recent spate of cilantro poisonings reminds us that although nothing looks healthier than fresh greens or fruit salad, the most beautiful produce may be riddled with invisible hazards: bacteria, fungi and even parasites.
Every year about one in six people gets sick from food poisoning — an estimated 48 million people a year in the United States alone, with 3,000 people dying from it and another 125,000 hospitalized, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Produce is the most common source of acute diarrhea due to foodborne illness — and most cases are entirely preventable, says Herbert L. DuPont, MD, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the University at the University of Texas - Houston School of Public Health.
“Most consumers are not aware that 98 percent of spinach and lettuce bought from the grocery store is not inspected and much of it comes from developing countries,” wrote DuPont in a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2014.
Pesticides in produce could pose longer-term hazards as well, note some experts. According to the CDC, the average American has traces of 29 pesticides in his body. As Michael Crupain, MD, MPH, director of Consumer Reports’ Food Safety and Sustainability Center, said in a special CR report on pesticides in produce, “We’re exposed to a cocktail of chemicals from our food on a daily basis” and no one knows enough about the health effects.
Related: Power Up Your Produce This Summer
Why to stop peeling
So what can you do to protect yourself? Should you simply wash fruits and vegetables, or should you also peel them whenever possible?
Many experts agree it’s better to rely on washing alone. Why? Not only are pesticides in some fruits and vegetables systemic — meaning they’re absorbed through the roots and so can’t be washed or peeled away — but the peel is often the rich in nutrients.
Consumer Reports experts recommend against peeling the skin “because it contains antioxidants, fiber, and other nutrients.” Instead, they recommend buying organic produce whenever possible and consulting the organization’s risk guide when shopping for produce.
The Environmental Working Group publishes every year a list of the most pesticide-laden produce. It may be best to buy organic versions of these if you can afford it.
Of course it’s still important to wash all produce, including organic, before eating it.
The best way to scrub
To get rid of contaminants on the surface of your produce, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends you:
- Wash your hands with warm soapy water for 20 seconds before handling produce
- Cut away bruised and damaged areas
- Gently rub the produce under running water
- Wash the produce before peeling it (if you’re going to peel it), so bacteria and dirt don’t get transferred onto the inside of the fruit or vegetable
- Use a clean vegetable brush to scrub firm fruits and vegetables like melons and cucumbers
- Dry produce on paper towels before eating
- Throw away the outermost leaves of lettuce and cabbage
DuPont suggests something a bit more rigorous for greens. “Consumers need to give their leafy greens a bath and a shower in order to make sure they are safe to eat.” He advises soaking leafy greens in a bowl of water or the sink, then placing them in a colander and rinsing thoroughly with running water.
What about that vegetable wash you’ve seen in the grocery store? No need for that. The FDA advises against using soap and commercial produce washes because their effectiveness is unproven and the wash could leave behind a residue that may be harmful, according to the agency.
But not to worry: Washing produce with plain water does the job just as well. Scientists at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station compared produce rinsed in plain water against fruits and vegetables washed with five different kinds of produce soaps. They also tested unwashed produce. In all experiments, the only group that was different was the unwashed produce.
The researchers found that rinsing produce with water for a minimum of 30 seconds is just as effective as using soap. In fact, they suggest it’s the mechanical action of rubbing the produce under water that is most likely responsible for removing pesticides and other substances.