"Eat your fruits and veggies — they're good for you!" This mantra has been engrained in all of us, and justifiably so. Getting your daily dose of fruits and vegetables comes with a myriad of health benefits, including a reduced risk of developing diet-related diseases like obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Now, when was the last time you heard someone say, "Wash your fruits and veggies before you eat them?" Likely, not as often. But it's also important to make sure you're washing them to avoid your berries coming with a side of bacteria. In fact, the recommendations are pretty straightforward and are designed to keep you safe and healthy.
If You Skip Washing Them, You Might Eat Bugs
"While biting into a juicy, crisp piece of fruit the moment you lay your hands on it may sound like a healthy habit, doing so without washing it first may actually make you sick." Cordialis Msora-Kasago, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Eating unwashed produce may cause you to ingest harmful bacteria, which may be present in the soil, or pesticides applied to produce in the fields. What's more, you might even end up eating bugs that were harvested along with the produce.
As consumers, we are generally not intimately involved in the process of growing and harvesting our own foods, so it's easy to forget that all of our produce comes from the earth.
Your Chances of Getting a Foodborne Illness Rise
"Since fresh produce grows in the soil and water, it will naturally be exposed to microorganisms," Toby Amidor, CDN, FAND, award-winning nutrition expert and author of The Healthy Meal Prep Cookbook, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Some pathogenic bacteria you may be exposed to include Escherichia coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Shigella, Msora-Kasago adds. "E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella are the most common bacteria that have been linked with foodborne illness. In many cases, the symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain. In severe cases, food poisoning may cause kidney failure, meningitis and even death."
Sure, this sounds frightening , but what are the odds of actually contracting a foodborne illness? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million people get sick from food poisoning in the U.S. every year.
"You're taking a risk when you consume any produce that isn't washed properly," Amidor points out. "Although our food system in the U.S. is very safe — every precaution is taken from farm to the table, and it's very well-regulated — there is always a chance that you can ingest harmful bacteria that can make you sick." People most at risk are those with compromised and/or immature immune systems, children younger than 5 years old and pregnant women.
So yes, it's absolutely worth it to take the extra precautions and wash your produce.
Read more: Top 10 Healthiest Fruits and Vegetables
How to Wash Vegetables and Fruits
Properly washing all produce, including ones listed as organic, local and non-GMO, can reduce the risks of both harmful bacteria and pesticides.
For washing produce at home, the FDA recommends a seven-step process:
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soapy warm water before and after preparing fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Cut any damaged or bruised areas on fruits and vegetables before preparing or eating.
- Rinse all produce with water before you peel it. This will help prevent cross-contamination from dirt and bacteria that might transfer from the knife onto your produce.
- Gently rub fruits and vegetables under plain, running water. There's no need to use soap or a produce wash.
- Scrub firm produce (think apples, melon, cucumber and pears) with a clean vegetable brush.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth or paper towel. This will help remove any remaining bacteria.
- For veggies like lettuce or cabbage, remove the outermost leaves.
What About Pre-Washed Produce?
So what if you purchase produce that is pre-washed or triple-washed — do those need to be washed as well?
Pre-washed items have gone through a specific washing process, using water at the point of packaging in the food packing house or processing area. After harvesting, there are two main processes for washing.
The first uses sanitized, recycled water, where the same water is used with multiple bins of produce that are placed into the packing line. The second process involves washing with water from a spray bar. Triple-washed produce undergoes an additional rinse at the end of the line with no added sanitizer to the water.
The FDA assures that you can use pre-washed produce without washing it yourself. Should you choose to wash produce marked as "pre-washed" or "ready-to-eat," you'll want to reduce the risk of cross-contamination by making sure that the pre-washed produce does not come in contact with unclean hands, surfaces or utensils.
Proper Storage Can Help Keep Bacteria Out
Once you've washed your fruits and greens, safely storing it extends the shelf life while reducing the risk of harmful bacterial growth. Amidor has four simple tips you can follow:
- Keep your refrigerator set at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Use a fridge thermometer to check!
- Store perishable fresh fruits and vegetables (like strawberries, lettuce, herbs and mushrooms) in a clean refrigerator at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
- Refrigerate all produce that is purchased pre-cut or peeled.
- Bag fresh fruits and vegetables separately from raw meat, poultry and seafood products when packing them to take home from the market.
When you purchase pre-prepared and pre-cut produce, be mindful of how the grocer has stored those items prior to purchasing. The FDA suggests that prior to purchase, all pre-cut fruits and veggies should be stored in the refrigerator or on ice.
So, Is It Really That Bad to Eat Produce Without Washing It?
There's a chance that popping a few berries straight from the fridge or steaming your broccoli without giving it a thorough rinse can cause you to eat bugs, soil or expose you to pathogenic bacteria. And in our book, that's pretty bad. So to stay safe, always wash your fruits and vegetables to reap their health benefits without risking your appetite — or health.