The recent romaine E. coli outbreak is just one more reminder that, for all their health benefits, fruits and vegetables still carry risks. Every time you munch a raw goodie, you might run into less savory things like soil, pesticides, wax residues, and, in rare occasions, really nasty microorganisms (like Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella, and E. coli).
While the agriculture industry does its best to keep your produce safe and clean from the farm to the supermarket, let's be real: we all like to have a little extra peace of mind, and that's where vegetable washes and sprays enter the picture.
But do they actually work? We investigated!
I think we all get the appeal of an at-home washing step — one that preferably doesn't introduce additional harsh chemicals, and also removes germs and other bugs introduced by your own hands and kitchen environment, as well as anything else your lettuce and tomatoes picked up between farm and fridge.
Enter: the veggie wash, which is typically billed as an effective, all-natural way to get squeaky clean (and safe) vegetables.
To get an expert take on whether our pennies are best spent (or saved) on these alluring bottles of veggie wash, I spoke to Dr. Eduardo Gutierrez-Rodriguez, an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Food Safety at North Carolina State University, who has worked with and within the fresh produce industry for more than 18 years.
Dr. Gutierrez-Rodriguez is uniquely suited to answer this question — in fact, you could say that washing vegetables is his expertise. He helps develop commercial washing systems for produce, and part of his job is to support growers on best food safety practices at the farm and packing house, and during transport.
He's been asked a lot about veggie washes. So I asked him, too.
Do Vegetable Washes Actually Work?
Short answer: probably not.
"The effectiveness of at-home vegetable washes is questionable, creating unrealistic expectations for consumers," says Gutierrez-Rodriguez. "The actual effectiveness of these solutions has not been standardized." In other words, what you get from various brands of wash to spray to wash could be entirely different; there's no one standard.
He explained that veggie washes aim to replicate and simplify the complex steps that food processing facilities or fresh fruit and vegetable packing houses take to prepare produce for consumers. Most of the veggie washes on the market include surfactants (an ingredient to loosen debris or pesticides) and/or a sanitizer (to kill microbes). But even if a product claims to kill 99.9% of bacteria, the remaining 0.1% may be enough to get you sick.
And even when using a great sanitizer, there are factors that can make it less effective when actually applied to your veggies. Water temperature, pH, the vessel you're cleaning your produce in (remember how your sink has more bacteria than a toilet bowl?), the kind of debris you're dealing with, and how much of the active ingredient is included.
So is there any way to be sure your veggies won't give you a stomach bug? Well, yes, but it's not very practical: In one study he cited, the only chemicals that reliably scourged Salmonella from leafy greens were sodium hypochlorite (free chlorine) and a peroxyacetic acid solution. You can find both of these chemicals in regular old bleach — but Gutierrez-Rodriguez certainly doesn't recommend us bleaching our produce!
The Best Way to Clean Fresh Produce
So, short of using bleach (uh, no thanks!) — is there an effective and practical way to wash our fresh produce?
At home, Gutierrez-Rodriguez suggests following the FDA guidelines:
- Clean your own space: Make sure you have cleaned and sanitized surfaces that come in contact with food, and wash your hands before and after handling fresh produce.
- Rinse in cool water for longer than you might expect: Run your produce under cool water for one to two minutes.
- Brush firmer veggies (but not softer ones): Using a brush on firmer veggies like melon and cucumbers can improve debris removal. But do not use a brush on softer ones; in that case the brush can push bacteria into the flesh.
- Dry thoroughly: Then air dry or use a single-use paper towel.
What about packaged produce? If the produce is already cut or packaged, though, don't re-wash it. The point of all of these steps is to reduce cross-contamination — something we're used to thinking about when it comes to chicken, but not so much on the produce front.
Safe and Clean Food Starts at the Grocery Store
Quit unnecessarily touching the produce! Or wash and disinfect your hands before and after, when you do. Otherwise, you're just sharing bugs! And if you see spoiling produce at the supermarket, point it out to a worker, as that could be a risk of contamination to other produce or to the consumer.
But what about pesticides? If you are worried about pesticides, know that the USDA considers our fruits and vegetables to have low to no residues, but if you are worried about the "Dirty Dozen," purchasing organic produce may reduce this exposure.
And there you have it: for the cleanest veggies at home, once again, water reigns.
How do you clean fruit and veggies at home? Do you wash religiously?