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Washing produce cuts down on germs

The latest romaine lettuce E. coli outbreak is a reminder to not only heed recalls and warnings about foodborne illness—it’s also a good time to remember that yes, washing your fruits and vegetables before eating or cooking them can wash away dirt, pesticides and germs.

“This lettuce recall reminds us to practice good hygiene when you’re preparing food by washing your hands and washing the fruits and vegetables you’re about to eat,” said Misty Duchnik, a dietitian and diabetes educator for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. “Though E. coli is so powerful it likely can’t be completely washed off of fruits and veggies, other germs, dirt and pesticide residue can be washed away.” 

How to wash your produce
Cleaning your fruits and vegetables is fairly straightforward. First, you should wash your hands with soap and warm water before you start handling any food in your kitchen—whether it’s an after-work snack or some fresh fruit for your oatmeal. 

Next, run your fruits and vegetables under cold water. Smaller greens, such as spinach, can be washed by gently swirling the leaves in a bowl of cold water. Use a clean fruit and vegetable brush to scrub away dirt and germs from fruits and vegetables with a firm skin, such as potatoes, cucumbers and melons. Produce with irregular surfaces, such as broccoli, should be soaked in cold water for 1-2 minutes to remove impurities from the crevasses. Don’t use soap, special washes or bleach to wash produce—these could leave residue behind.  

“Even if you are peeling or cutting a fruit or vegetable like a cucumber or an apple, you should wash it thoroughly first,” said Duchnik. “Bacteria can spread pretty easily from the outside of a fruit or veggie you plan to peel or cut if you don’t wash it first.”

Before cooking or eating fruits and vegetables, cut away any bruised or damaged parts of the food. 

Foods marked pre-washed, such as bags of lettuce or cut vegetables don’t need to be washed again.

Avoid cross-contamination
Washing your hands and the produce you plan to eat is a good first step, but don’t forget about the tools you’re using. Bacteria can spread from one food to the next; clean your knife, countertops and cutting board or plate with hot, soapy water after cutting or preparing each food before you move onto the next one. 

Similarly, you should use separate cutting boards for raw meat, poultry and seafood. 
The “dirty dozen” and “clean 15”
The cleanliness of your produce varies depending on the type and whether it’s conventional or organic. 
Some conventional fruits and vegetables hold pesticide residue more than others. You might want to consider buying organic varieties of these foods, which the Environmental Working Group deems the “dirty dozen.” They are:

  • Strawberries
  • Spinach
  • Nectarines
  • Apples
  • Grapes
  • Peaches
  • Cherries
  • Pears
  • Tomatoes
  • Celery
  • Potatoes
  • Sweet bell peppers

On the other side of the spectrum are the “clean 15”—the fruits and vegetables that typically hold the least amount of pesticide residue. They are:

  • Avocados
  • Sweet corn
  • Pineapples
  • Cabbages
  • Onions
  • Sweet peas (frozen)
  • Papayas
  • Asparagus
  • Mangos
  • Eggplants
  • Honeydew melons
  • Kiwis
  • Cantaloupes
  • Cauliflower
  • Broccoli

Conventional versions of these fruits and vegetables should be fine to buy and eat. 

Regardless of whether your fruits and vegetables are organic or conventional, they still need to be washed. 

“Practicing food safety can help you reduce the potential of being sickened by harmful germs and help you and your family stay healthy,” said Duchnik. 

Misty Duchnik, RDN LDN CDE, is a dietitian and diabetes educator for Geisinger Community Medical Center in Scranton. To schedule an appointment, call 800-275-6401.

Woman washing romaine lettuce
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