During a time when hand-washing is paramount, people have begun to wonder how best to wash their fresh fruits and veggies. Experts agree that there is no reason to overthink cleaning your produce: Water is the only thing you should use.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a video has been circulating about using soap and water, but since its release (and millions of views) the video has been updated to tell viewers they should only be using water.
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"Water is considered enough by food and safety experts," says Sarah Sorscher, deputy director of regulatory affairs for Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
It's also important to understand that there is no reason to believe that COVID-19 is foodborne, Sorscher says.
Before you wash your produce, wash your hands first for 20 seconds with warm water and soap. Then, gently rub your produce while holding under plain running water. Finally, dry your produce with a clean cloth or paper towel to further reduce any bacteria or other substances that may have been on the surface, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
"Be careful to avoid water splashing back onto [your food] from the sides of the sink, which can be contaminated with bacteria," Sorscher says. "You can prevent this by soaking or rinsing the produce in a separate bowl."
What to Wash Your Produce With
Washing your produce with water should be standard practice. But before you even touch your food, it's important to wash your hands with soap and water first. That way you'll get rid of any disease-causing germs.
The FDA recommends following this stepped procedure when washing produce:
- Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds
- Cut away any damaged or bruised areas
- Rinse produce before you peel it
- Gently rub produce while holding it under running water
- Scrub tough exteriors with a brush
- Dry produce with a clean paper towel to get rid of lingering bacteria
- Remove the outermost leaves on a head of lettuce or cabbage
- Wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds once more
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing the peels even if you don't plan on eating them because if a piece of fruit or vegetable does have germs on it, they can seep through to the skin when you cut it.
It's also important to cut away damaged or bruised areas before eating because that's where disease-causing bacteria could live, according to the CDC and the USDA.
For foods with rough exteriors, like potatoes or beets, Rizzo recommends using a scrub brush with water.
Your wash water should not be more than 10 degrees colder than your produce, according to Colorado State University. That will prevent microorganisms from entering into the stem or blossom end of the produce.
Type of Produce
How to Wash
Leafy green vegetables
Discard outer leaves and rinse under running water. Soak in cold water to loosen dirt. Blot dry or dry in spinner.
Firm produce such as apples
Wash under running water.
Wash and peel or use a scrub brush.
Use a scrub brush and wash thoroughly under running water.
Wash under running water and use gloves; don't touch your eyes.
Soft produce like peaches
Wash under running water and pat dry with paper towel.
Grapes, cherries, berries
Store unwashed until ready to eat, then wash gently under running water.
Clean with a soft brush or wipe with a wet paper towel to remove dirt.
Dip and swish in a bowl of cool water, then pat dry with a paper towel.
How to Remove Pesticides from Fruits and Vegetables
Baking soda might be effective in removing some pesticides, Sorscher says. To try this at home, simply mix one teaspoon of baking soda with two cups of water and submerge your produce in the solution for two minutes or more, Consumer Reports advises. The longer you soak your fruits and veggies, the more chemicals you potentially get rid of.
However, know that baking soda isn't going to kill bacteria if used to wash produce, Rizzo says. "What it might do," she says, "is improve surface tension of the water to rinse more effectively, but it won't kill any microbes."
What You Probably Shouldn't Wash Your Produce With
1. Water and Soap
While scrubbing your hands with soap and water is one of the best ways to keep your hands clean and free of illness-causing pathogens, you should not wash anything you eat with soap.
"If consumed, they can make you ill," says Tamika Sims, PhD, director of food technology communications for the International Food Information Council. "These compounds were not designed to be ingested or be introduced to foods."
Sorscher points out that even if you're rinsing produce with soap on it, there could be residue, which can be harmful.
The USDA says soaps and detergents are "not approved or labeled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] for use on foods," and "you could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on produce."
2. Water and Vinegar
While you could wash produce with diluted vinegar, which may be more effective at reducing bacteria, it's not necessary, Sorscher says. And vinegar isn't included on the Environmental Protection Agency's list of certified disinfectants.
3. Lemon Juice
Like vinegar, lemon juice can alter the taste of your produce if used for washing, Sims says. While some older, small studies have suggested they can remove E.coli and Salmonella, plain water can do the trick.
"If you choose to [wash with lemon juice], the produce should still be rinsed with running water to be thoroughly cleaned," Sims says.
4. Produce Wash
Given that a quick search on Amazon shows produce-cleaning products are pretty much entirely sold out, you may find it hard to believe that they're not effective.
"There's no evidence to support what they claim to do," Rizzo says. What's more is these washes haven't been vetted by the FDA, Sorscher says.
"Companies that sell produce washes aren't required to prove they are safe and effective," she says. "The little research that has been done on these washes generally shows they are no better than distilled water at removing microbes. Some are actually worse."
Sanitizer should only be used to "wash" your hands if soap and water — which is the best way to clean your hands, according to the CDC — are unavailable.
Sorscher says that while the food industry might use approved sanitizers in its wash water — called "produce wash water sanitizers" — it's never been recommended for consumers at home.
Plus, these sanitizers are different from hand sanitizers: Produce wash water sanitizers are either chlorine- or peroxyacetic acid-based, while hand sanitizers are alcohol-based, according to the Center for Agriculture, Food and the Environment at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Never Wash Produce With Bleach
Ingesting bleach is incredibly dangerous and could be fatal, Rizzo says. No one should be washing anything they put in their mouth with bleach, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And because many fruits and vegetables are porous, they're prone to absorbing chemicals, according to the USDA.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Fruit and Vegetable Safety"
- United States Department of Agriculture: "Washing Food: Does it Promote Food Safety?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Show Me the Science – When & How to Use Hand Sanitizer in Community Settings"
- University of Massachusetts Amherst The Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment: "Produce Wash Water Sanitizers: Chlorine and PAA"
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: "Help Keep your Family Healthy by Washing Fresh Produce"
- Environmental Protection Agency: "Selected EPA-Registered Disinfectants"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits, Vegetables"
- Colorado State University: "Guide to Washing Fresh Produce"