The Dirty Truth About Your Fruits and Veggies
Almost all plants live (or spend some time) on the ground before they end up in stores for us to buy and eat. Between bacteria, viruses, and just plain dirt, the food you buy in stores often carries more than just nutrients into your body. That's why it's a good idea to wash your produce.
But what about pesticides, isn't that a good reason to wash your produce, too?
Well, sure, it won't hurt, but consider this:
There are many ethical issues regarding the use of pesticides, such as the environmental impacts as well as how they impact the native flora and fauna. While pesticides can also help to protect our food supply, many people are concerned about pesticides on the food they eat. Small amounts of pesticide residues may stay in or on our food after it is applied, but pesticides do 'break down' over time, meaning very little residue is left by the time we eat the food.
The rate of 'break down' depends on the type of pesticide used, the application conditions, and the type of food treated. So, the amount and nature of pesticide residue can be different from one pesticide or food type to another.
The Government of Canada uses compliance and enforcement activities to make sure producers properly use and apply pesticides and respect established residue limits. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) monitors and enforces residue limits in both domestic and imported foods. The CFIA reports that over the last 10 years, residue data shows that the compliance rate is consistently very high for fresh fruits and vegetables.
For example, in 2006/07:
More than 99% of Canadian fruits and vegetables and 99% of imported foods tested, were well below Canada's residue limits.
No residues were found in 90% of Canadian fruits and vegetables and in 89% of food imports tested, at CFIA's analytical limit.
If tested food products contain residues exceeding limits, enforcement action may be taken: removing the food from stores, seizing food stocks, rejecting imports and/or prosecuting offenders.
So while washing your produce may get rid of any lingering pesticide residue (if any), the amounts on your food are negligible and do not accumulate in the body. So don't worry too much about consuming pesticides (let's focus our concerns on how it affects things like our planet and delicate ecosystems)!
But, if you still wash your produce for fear of pesticides, at least you'll be getting rid of any snotty-nose, didn't-wash-their-hands-after-they-used-the-bathroom random person bacteria & viruses.
The brightly colored produce that you see in the market might look cosmetically “clean”, but what you can’t see are the microscopic bacteria or viruses that CAN and do make you sick. Markets only spray produce so that it looks clean and appealing to you, but their quick spraying doesn’t do much to protect you from microorganisms that can cause illness.
The truth of the matter is that growing food is dirty business; you can’t get away from the fact that plants grow in dirt. We often forget what actually goes into getting food from the fields to our plates. To grow food, farmers have to fertilize their crops (that can mean animal poop) and prevent infestation (pesticides and herbicides). To get that food to your table, it needs to be picked (clean hands?) and transported using machines and trucks to markets which are questionably sanitary.
There’s just no way to know what (or who) has touched your produce before it’s in your shopping cart. As they say, “one bad apple spoils the bunch”. It’s very important to remember that it only takes a very small number of bacteria or viruses to make you sick or to spread bacteria around your home. The threat of these illnesses is not at epidemic levels, but it's still something to be mindful of.
Even though it is time consuming, it is really important to clean your produce thoroughly.
You might think that buying only organic produce would avoid this issue, but is that really the case? If you buy organic does that mean you don't have to wash your produce? Does that mean there are no pesky pesticides to worry about? Obviously, buying organic food is a personal choice. However, even organic food can still contain some pesticide residues or become exposed to bacteria or viruses just like traditional foods. Contamination can happen from the person picking it, in the truck on its way to the store, or when it’s being stocked in the store where you buy it; it takes a lot of hands to get food to stores, and not all those hands are guaranteed to be clean. For these reasons, it's always a good idea to wash any produce in case it is somehow contaminated either in transport or in the store. If you buy all of your organic (or conventional) produce from a local source, you can always inquire about their use of pesticides. What About Those Fruit And Vegetable Washing Products?
Over the last few years, a number of products marketed specifically for removing pesticides from fruit and vegetables have come to markets. They make all kinds of claims about how well they remove pesticides and bacteria from fruits of vegetables, and they seem like something that would be a good idea to use to protect yourself from any hidden dangers. Unfortunately, when tested independently, they are simply no better at removing pesticides than tap water alone. Since there was no difference between water and the other products, it appears that it is the act of rubbing and washing with your hands that is what actually removes most of the residue. You should wash and rinse your produce for at least 30 seconds and make sure to rub it down with your hands very thoroughly. You could also use a soft brush (like a toothbrush) to get some extra scrubbing power.
Adding vinegar to the water appears to have mixed results when it comes to getting rid of any remaining pesticide residues; sometimes it is slightly better at removing residue than water alone, and sometimes it is the same. It isn’t clear as to which types of fruits or vegetables benefit from adding vinegar to the water, so it is probably best just to add a little to the water you use to wash any produce. Vinegar is inexpensive, you use very little of it each time, and washing produce with it will actually help to keep your fruits and veggies fresher longer, anyway! Vinegar helps to remove bacteria and viruses from produce when you use it as part of the washing. It doesn’t necessarily kill any of these microorganisms, it just makes it harder for them to stick around on the surface, so they wash away easier in the water. Washing strawberries in vinegar, for instance, removes over 90-95% of viruses and bacteria. Since vinegar can sometimes leave an unpleasant flavor, it’s a good idea to rinse your produce with plain water once you’re done washing. That should get rid of any of the leftover vinegar flavor. Some people avoid washing delicate foods like raspberries in vinegar, but I find they keep my berries extra fresh, and don't alter the flavour in the least. How To Wash Produce
So it appears that washing produce in water is the best option, especially when combined with a little vinegar. Just make sure to rub the surface of the produce with your hands or a soft brush to scrub or “mechanically” remove any pathogens. For leafy vegetables and softer fruit, wash them for at least 30 seconds in a bowl with a small amount of vinegar diluted in water; the ratio should be about 1 capful (about 1-2 tablespoons) per gallon of water. After washing them thoroughly, rinse them off with plain water for another 30 seconds. For waxy vegetables and waxy fruits (think bell peppers and apples) the best option appears to be to wash them for at least 30 seconds in the vinegar mixture above (1-2 tablespoons vinegar per gallon of water) with about 3-4 tablespoons of salt added to it. The added salt helps to “scrub” the waxy surface of the produce. After washing thoroughly, rinse them off with plain water for another 30 seconds. You can even use he edge of a sharp knife to scrape away the waxy substance. With that being said, once this wax substance is removed, things like apples will generally go bad fast. Even if you don’t eat the outside part of the produce (think oranges, cantaloupe, pumpkin, etc.), even the sharp edge of a knife can carry bacteria or viruses into the inside. So it is still very important to wash the outside thoroughly in the same way as the other items above. You should also use a soft brush to really get into the crevices and scrub the skin. The reason for washing the outside is that you still peel, cut through, or simply handle the outside to get at the delicious fleshy stuff inside. The Bottom Line
To safely remove microorganisms, wash produce in a mild water and vinegar solution, then rinse with water for at least 30 seconds for each step. Remember, even if you only buy organic (or even grow your own food), it is still a good idea to thoroughly wash your fruits and veggies to protect the health of you and your family, rather than the ol' trusty shirt rub.
Krol, et. al, 2000.
Reduction of Pesticide Residues on Produce by Rinsing.
Removal of Trace Pesticide Residues from Produce.
Lukasik, et. al, 2003.
Reduction of poliovirus 1, bacteriophages, Salmonella montevideo, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 on strawberries by physical and disinfectant washes.