If pesticides are bad for you and you avoid “Roundup™ Ready” and other glyphosate-saturated produce, shouldn’t organic produce be ready-to-eat without washing? It doesn’t have pesticides. It hasn’t been coated with wax to make it look better. In fact, it usually looks more beat up than the standard produce. So, why is it important to wash your fruit and vegetables before you eat them? I wonder this every time I am ready to sink my teeth into an unwashed organic apple.
The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recommends washing all produce before eating, including organic produce. I wanted to find out why. After all, shouldn’t I just be able to polish that apple on my sleeve like I did back in the day before everything was covered in a waxy coating or (worse) sprayed with pesticides?
The FDA’s website does not distinguish between organic and nonorganic produce. They just advise that you thoroughly wash & dry all produce before eating it. Unless the produce is labeled pre-washed, like those clamshell baby lettuce leaves whose labels say triple-washed. The FDA’s warning is that bacteria may exist in the soil, even if the produce comes from your own garden. They also caution the young, the elderly, and the immunocompromised, not to eat unwashed produce or drink unpasteurized juices or even eat raw sprouts. They advise that you cook sprouts even if you grew them at home. Hmmm… I don’t know about that last one. Cooking sprouts is kinda wacky. Raw sprouts are sacrosanct in the natural foodie world. But, definitely check the sprout packaging carefully if you buy sprouts at the store. They should not be soggy, either at the root end or at the tip. They should not look wilted or smell bad.
Let’s back up a little. Because I DO distinguish between organic and nonorganic foods. You already know from my previous blog, What Constitutes Healthy Food, about the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) list of which produce you should eat organic and which are safe to eat nonorganic.
When I cook and or eat raw anything from the Clean 15 – those foods that are safe to eat even if not organic – I handle them in this way: I don’t wash avocados, corn, pineapples, onions, or melons. All are covered naturally with peel, husk, or rind. I do not serve those foods with the natural covering on them. I peel or cut that part off. Then I wash my hands thoroughly with soap and water before handling the unpeeled fruit or veggie. When I handle cabbage, I peel off the outer leaves and cut out a wedge if I’m dicing it for a salad. When I use it later after storing it, I then cut off a sliver of the portion that has browned from exposure to air where I had previously cut it. You don’t want to eat that browned part.
Sweet peas come in a shell. No need to wash. I use onion skin when I make soup stock so any germs get boiled off. Asparagus, mangoes, papayas, kiwi, eggplant, and cauliflower should all be washed and dried before peeling or consuming. Depending on your water. If you have squeaky clean drinking water such as from your own well or spring, you should be able to skip the drying step. But, if you rely on a public water system, as I do, wash and then dry your vegetables carefully so there are no tap water droplets left on them. They may contain harmful contaminants like lead. Read more about the danger of lead in your water and how it can affect your health here: https://www.focusforhealth.org/lead-there-is-no-safe-level/
When handling what EWG refers to as the Dirty Dozen, the produce you should only buy organic, you should still wash and dry your fruits and vegetables. Strawberries should be firm and blemish free. If they are not, slice off the bruised part and wash and dry all berries carefully. The same care should be used for nectarines, peaches, grapes, cherries & tomatoes. When preparing apples, celery, bell peppers, and cucumbers, be sure to scrub the skin with a vegetable brush. When you buy root vegetables such as carrots, beets, or squash, be sure to scrub off all traces of soil and wash and dry carefully. I like to use a tea towel to dry vegetables to save on paper towels and because they are absorbent and so easily laundered. If you’ve seen those bottles of vegetable wash in your grocer, pass them by. A thorough rinse under running water is sufficient. And, don’t use dish liquid or hand soap to clean food products either. Stick with pure clean drinking water.
When preparing greens that are not prewashed, carefully pick out any wilted or soggy leaves. Remove any brown leaves. I like to soak greens while I chop other vegetables. Soaking salad greens in cold water makes them crisper and dislodges any foreign matter that either falls to the bottom of the bowl or rises to the top. I rinse them thoroughly through a colander and then spin them in a salad spinner to remove most of the water. Afterward, I dump all the greens out on another tea towel and roll them in it to ensure they are completely dry. This helps get rid of any water and potential contaminants but also makes the greens nice and dry and doesn’t dilute your salad dressing. When you store your greens in the refrigerator, add half of a paper towel to the clamshell or bag. It absorbs humidity and keeps your greens fresher longer.
It’s important to note where your produce comes from. Unless it’s something like a banana or an avocado, which come with a natural peel that keeps them clean inside, do not buy produce grown in other countries.
Especially delicate water-rich food products like greens. Other countries often do not have the same hygienic conditions that we have here in the states. For example, large farms in second and third world countries often do not provide clean drinking water for their workers. They also do not provide restrooms. So, guess where vegetable pickers are relieving themselves? In the field, of course. Human waste is a hazardous contaminant and is a big red flag. Take no chances. Buy locally grown produce, if possible. But, during winter months, only buy produce grown in the United States – in the season for that state – to be on the safe side. You can get very sick from food borne bacteria.
Finally, let’s talk about visibly dirty produce. Potatoes are grown in dirt. Even if they look clean, you should scrub them and cut off any bruises or sprouts. Mushrooms are grown in manure. That’s right. Those little brown clingy spots of dirt? Manure. You don’t want to eat that. Rinse them and wipe them gently with a sponge or one of those fancy mushroom brushes. Whatever method you choose, be sure to eliminate all visible dirt. Then dry them thoroughly. Cut off any soggy spots.
I’m not big on eating rotten food. Carefully pick through your produce to eliminate any trace of mold, rot, or bacteria. My motto? If in doubt, throw it out.