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Research shows that eating lofts of fresh fruits and vegetables reduces our risk of some cancers and other diseases, but we also hear of the risks associated with eating raw produce.
There have been cases of food-borne illnesses linked to melons, sprouts, spinach, tomatoes and several other items. The bacteria that cause these illnesses are destroyed by heating, but many fruits and vegetables, like lettuce, melons and strawberries, are never cooked, so you may wonder how to reduce the risk while getting the nutritional benefits.
It’s just common sense to wash all fruits and vegetables before you peel, cut, eat or cook them. In addition to removing dirt and possible pesticides, washing reduces bacterial that may be present. To preserve its quality, wash the produce just before preparation, not when you bring it home. Washing before storage will cause produce to spoil faster.
The University of Maine Extension offers some suggestions on the best ways to keep produce safe:
•Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after preparing food.
•Clean your counter top, cutting boards and utensils after peeling produce and before cutting and chopping. Bacteria from the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is cut or peeled. Wash kitchen surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
•Do not wash produce with soaps or detergents.
•Use clean drinkable cold water to wash items.
•For produce with thick skin, use a vegetable brush to help wash away hard-to-remove dirt.
•Produce with a lot of nooks and crannies like cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce should be soaked for one to two minutes in cold clean water.
•Some produce, such as raspberries, should not be soaked in water. Put fragile produce in a colander and spray it with clean water.
•After washing, dry with clean paper towel. This can remove more bacteria.
•Eating on the run? Fill a spray bottle with clean water and use it to wash apples and other fruits.
•Don’t forget that homegrown, farmers market, and grocery store fruits and vegetables should also be well washed. A salad spinner can come in handy to help remove excess moisture for produce such as lettuce and leafy greens.
•Even if you plan to peel the produce before eating, it is still important to wash it first.
•Do not rewash packaged products labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed” or “triple washed.”
•Wax coatings are used on some produce to keep in the moisture. These are safe to eat or you can cut it off.
•Once cut or peeled, refrigerate as soon as possible at 40 degrees or below.
•Do not purchase cut produce that is not refrigerated.
They stress not to use soap, detergent or bleach when washing fruits and vegetables where the skins are to be eaten, but you may wonder about using one of those commercial washes that are often found in the produce section of the grocery store. There have been several studies that have looked at these products and found them to be “equally effective” or just “slightly better” than washing the produce with lots of clean water. A Colorado State University bulletin says, “that it comes down to personal preference as to whether produce washes are worth the purchase price.”
If you’d feel better adding something to the water when washing fruits and vegetables, add some white vinegar. Make a mixture of 1/3 to 1/2 cup distilled white vinegar per cup of water. Using vinegar has been shown to reduce bacterial contamination, but may also affect texture and taste. Be sure to rinse the produce well after washing.
Sources: A Closer Look at Produce Washes, Colorado State University; Tips for Fresh Produce Safety, FoodSafety.gov; Washing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables, University of Illinois Extension and Best Ways to Wash Fruits and Vegetables, The University of Maine.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center 253-2610.