Be honest: Do you always (or ever…) wash your fruits and veggies before eating them? We’ve all wondered whether this food prep step is truly necessary—especially when we’re rushing to throw together a meal last minute—so we turned to the experts to set the record straight. The consensus: Heck yeah.
The Case For Washing Your Fruits And Veggies
Though the Environmental Protection Agency asserts that all pesticides used on foods have been tested and are safe to consume, and outside research also shows that the pesticide residue found on even non-organic foods is minimal enough to not be harmful, many Americans worry about the pesticides on the produce we eat.
Whether you choose to buy organic produce or not, though, there’s still one major reason you should wash it before noshing: contamination. Fruits and vegetables can be vessels for germs like salmonella, E. coli, and listeria, which can leave you with nasty symptoms like diarrhea, nausea, and stomach cramps for up to a week, and even be life-threatening in some cases. According to the FDA, nearly 48 million people get sick from contaminated food each year.
“Washing fresh produce is an important preventive practice,” says Sanja Ilic, Ph.D., assistant professor and State Food Safety Specialist at The Ohio State University. You don’t have to worry about produce that can be peeled (like oranges and bananas), but otherwise you should wash your fruits and veggies—especially those with rough skin. “Cantaloupe, for example, has a rind with lots of nooks and crannies to harbor bacteria, which can be spread to the pulp during cutting,” explains Ilic.
Of course, rinsing your produce won’t remove every microorganism. “There’s a misconception that if you wash something, you get rid of all the bacteria that could be there,” says Amanda Deering, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor in Purdue University’s Department of Food Sciences. But still, it’s better to wash than not.
Bagged Lettuce: An Exception
The one time you can get away with not washing your food is when you’re eating ‘pre-washed’ or ‘ready to eat’ bagged lettuce, which is considered safe to eat as is, says Deering. In fact, if you were to clean pre-washed produce, you could just end up introducing contamination from your kitchen, whether from dirty surfaces or previously-used utensils.
There have been some recalls of bagged lettuce because of listeria, which is naturally found in the soil, but considering how infrequently this is an issue, you don’t need to worry about it, Deering says.
The Right Way To Wash Your Produce
Before you wash your fruits and veggies, the FDA recommends you wash your hands. Then, cut off bruised or damaged areas, and rinse your produce for at least 20 seconds. (The longer you rinse, the more bacteria you disrupt, so the longer the better, says Deering.) For firm types of produce—think apples, melons, and cucumbers—use a veggie brush to really get in there as you rinse. (Just make sure to clean it between uses.) Once you’re done, dry your produce with a clean paper towel, which also helps remove remaining bacteria, says Ilic.
And while it might seem easier to wash all your fruits and veggies as soon as you get home from the grocery store, wait to wash produce until right before you’re going to use it, says Deering. The leftover moisture from cleaning your food can make it spoil quicker.