Soak, scrub or spray: Best way to clean fruit, vegetables is open to debate

Quiz time, food mavens.

Which of the following is the best way to wash your fruits and vegetables:

A) Soak in distilled water.

B) Scrub with a vegetable brush under running water.

C) Spray with a commercial produce wash such as Fit.

D) Spray with a homemade solution of water and lemon juice, vinegar and baking soda.

E) It depends.

If you answered E, you're right. And it depends not only on the type of produce but also on who's dispensing the advice.

The Food and Drug Administration recommends one method; researchers at the University of Maine advocate another. The makers of commercial produce washes such as Fit and Veggie Wash say their products work best, but lots of Web sites say the homemade stuff is just as good, and cheaper.

With so much conflicting and confusing advice, what can you believe? And why even bother to figure it out?

Here's why: About 5,000 deaths are caused by foodborne-related illnesses in the United States each year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates, and some 325,000 people are sickened enough to be hospitalized.

Last year alone, 1,442 people, including 15 in Pennsylvania, were sickened by a salmonella outbreak as federal officials struggled to track down the source, eventually identified as jalapeno and serrano peppers and possibly tomatoes. Beginning in December, almost 400 Americans in 42 states were sickened -- nine fatally -- from salmonella in peanut butter products.

"Part of the reason is that many of the laws and regulations governing food safety in America have not been updated since they were written in the time of Teddy Roosevelt," President Obama said in a weekly radio address last month. Calling the FDA "underfunded and understaffed," Obama said he would create a Food Safety Working Group to advise him on upgrading food safety laws.

Complicating the issue is the growing realization that some contaminations could be systemic. Scientists think pathogens may become lodged in plant tissues as they grow, making surface washing ineffective. But because surface washing is one of the few things we consumers can control, we might as well get it right.

There's another reason to commit to a washing regimen: pesticide residue.

An FDA-sponsored study in 2006 analyzed, according to guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency, 5,512 produce samples from 85 countries. No residues were found on about 70 percent of domestic and imported produce, and only 1.6 percent of domestic produce and 5.1 percent of imported produce were in violation of the guidelines.

Trouble is, you never know which percentage the produce in your fridge is falling into.

Even after washing, some fruits and vegetables carry higher pesticide levels than others, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture lab tests show. After analyzing 87,000 government test results, the nonprofit watchdog Environmental Working Group developed the "Dirty Dozen" list of fruits and vegetables, including peaches, nectarines, apples, celery and spinach, that the group advises consumers to always buy organic.

But wait, there's more

Pesticides aren't the only problem. Some produce, notably apples, citrus, summer squash and cucumbers, can be treated with fungicides and waxes to replace the natural waxes removed during washing.

Food-grade beeswax, petroleum and shellac all can be used in fruit and vegetable wax, according to FDA guidelines. Waxes enhance appearance and extend shelf life, but they should be removed before eating, as should fungicides. Markets that carry waxed produce are required to identify it as such on prominently placed signs in the produce department.

Which is exactly where you should begin to practice safe food handling, by buying only what you can eat within a few days or a week or two, depending on the produce. When you get home, refrigerate items immediately without washing, which could cause them to deteriorate faster.

At least, that's the standard advice. Nutritionist Judy Dodd begs to differ.

"I wash most things that are going to be eaten [out of hand] before they go into the fridge." That way, she's sure that whoever reaches in for an apple or orange is getting clean fruit.

That goes for celery and bananas, too.

"Bananas I wash as soon as I bring them home. People get fruit flies [in their kitchens]. Where do fruit flies come from? Usually from bugs that lay eggs on fruit."

When you're ready to use those fruits and veggies, wash your hands with warm water and soap for 20 seconds. Remember, even if you plan to peel the produce, it's important to wash it first. Begin by cutting away any damaged or bruised areas.

Hold the soap

Most researchers advise not to use soap, liquid detergent or a chlorine bleach solution to wash produce because none has been approved for human consumption and all could be absorbed into the fruit or vegetable, especially if it has a nick or blemish. Food scientists at Cornell University believe that while a detergent solution may remove more bacteria and perhaps some pesticides than running water, they say soap is harder to remove from foods than from dishes and could make some people sick.

The FDA recommendations are quick and easy: wash fruits and vegetables under running tap water and scrub firm produce with a vegetable scrub brush. Running water has an abrasive effect that you don't get with soaking.

"The mechanical action of the water in striking the produce has a greater chance to remove contaminants," said FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek.

A good, clean scrub brush is essential to getting into the nooks and crannies of some produce, such as potatoes and melons. If you don't wash that cantaloupe or watermelon before you cut it, Ms. Dodd said, you're risking a foodborne illness, especially if you overlap those slices on a picnic tray and let them sit outside for a couple of hours.

And be careful where you put your unwashed produce before you cut it.

"Would you put your shoe on the drain board?" she said. "We forget where food grows."

A matter of choice

Using a produce wash such as Fit, Veggie Wash or Organiclean seems to be a matter of personal choice. Most studies have shown they are "equally effective" or "slightly better" than tap or distilled water in removing microbes and pesticide resides, according to dietitians at Colorado State University.

A 2002 study by toxicologist Robert Krieger at the University of California, Riverside, for example, found that produce washes were only 6 percent more effective than just rinsing under running water.

But what happens if you change the water?

Most of us live in communities with chlorinated tap water, and produce processors often use chlorine in wash, spray and flume waters to remove bacteria and mold.

But ozone, a gas with three oxygen atoms, is thought to kill more bacteria than chlorine and some scientists think it could be safer to use. European cities have used ozone-based water purification systems for more than a century.

Now that ozone-based water purification and food sterilizer systems have been developed for home use, researchers in the University of Maine's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition wanted to see how they stacked up against distilled water and Fit.

Both Fit, sprayed directly on the produce, and a two-minute bath in plain distilled water were equally effective in removing microbes from blueberries and reducing the level of residual pesticides. Both ozone systems removed microbes, too, but they weren't as effective as a mere soaking in distilled water and they took considerably longer, at least 15 minutes. The researchers recommend distilled water over a commercial wash such as Fit primarily because distilled water is a less expensive option.

On the other hand, some people might find a small bottle of produce wash easier to keep on hand than a gallon of distilled water.

Make it yourself?

Numerous Web sites recommend using homemade produce washes because they are considerably less expensive than commercial ones.

"As I was washing a bunch of seedless red grapes [using a $5.99 bottle of Fit], I thought to myself: 'Am I flushing our hard-earned money down the drain? Could I make this stuff myself?' " writes Wendy McCormick on her blog, The Frugal Mom. But after reading online the results of a Connecticut study that showed commercial washes were as effective as running water, Ms. McCormick decided to forgo even a homemade wash. For consumers not wishing to run up their water bills, she suggests soaking produce in a half-vinegar, half-water solution.

Most of the homemade preparations call for various amounts of vinegar, lemon juice and baking soda dissolved in water.

The Colorado dietitians report that studies evaluating the use of full-strength vinegar and a 13-percent solution of lemon juice in water as anti-microbial agents found they were more effective when combined with other treatments, such as water rinse or agitation.

Full-strength vinegar, however, could affect the taste of the produce.

Have we thoroughly confused you? Here's the takeaway: At the very least, wash your fruits and vegetables under running water and scrub the firm ones, and use a commercial or homemade spray if you want to increase your comfort level. For fragile and clustered fruits like berries and grapes, put them in a colander before running them under water (you can spray them first, if you like, with a produce wash).

Once your produce has been washed, the FDA recommends, drying it with a clean towel or paper towel may further reduce bacteria.

One last word: Always buy from a store or farm you know and trust. With that and proper cleaning, in the crapshoot that modern food safety has become, at least you're giving your family a fighting chance.

Patricia Lowry can be reached at or 412-263-1590. First Published April 16, 2009 4:00 AM


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