Between the pathogens and residual pesticides left on fruit and vegetable surfaces, the threat of these illnesses lurks on the skin of every peach and in the crevice of every lettuce head that you see in the supermarket. During the warmer months, when people’s consumption of raw produce is much higher, we have to be especially careful of how we prepare our foods.
The number-one way to avoid getting sick is to make sure that your produce is clean. Even if you grow your own or buy organic, a thorough rinse is always a good idea.
The Power of Good Old-Fashioned Water
Recognizing the paranoia of the masses after many food-borne illnesses were reported in the media, pharmaceutical and cleaning companies began introducing an array of produce washes. Walk through the fruits-and-vegetables section in your local supermarket, and you’ll find products like Biokleen or Fit. But buying a produce wash may not be the answer. Try these tips for cleaning with water first:
1. Before you wash or soak your food, wash your hands with antibacterial soap. You don’t want the soap to actually touch your food (that’s a bad idea), but your hands carry loads of bacteria that can easily transfer to your food.
2. Don’t use any soap, detergent, bleach, or other toxic chemicals to clean your food. They will leave a residue of their own on the surface.
3. Consider cleaning your fruits and veggies with distilled water or a diluted vinegar solution of one part vinegar and three parts water. Keep it in a spray bottle for convenience. If you’re just using the water from your kitchen faucet to clean produce, let it run for a few minutes beforehand and always use cold water.
Different Strokes for Different ’Chokes
Because fruits and vegetables aren’t all alike, each type demands a different method of cleaning.
Fruits with stems (apples, pears, peaches): Since bacteria and dirt are usually trapped at the blossom and stem ends of fruit, it’s best to cut off both ends after rinsing.
Fruits with rinds (oranges, avocados): Even though you’re not going to eat the rind, wash the skin and rub it gently with a brush. Again, bacteria gets stuck in the crevices and can transfer to your (hopefully) clean hands, or maybe to the knife you’re using to cut, which then transfers to the edible parts of the fruit.
Berries: Wash thoroughly with cold water in a colander.
Leafy greens: These should get a two-minute cold-water soak, followed by a drain in a colander. Repeat if necessary. Even if the packaging claims that your greens are prewashed, play it safe and wash them again. For whole heads of lettuce, remove the outer layer first before soaking.
Root vegetables (potatoes, carrots): Soak these for a couple of minutes, too. Even if you’re going to peel off the skin, brush it under running water before peeling. It may be possible that the knife or peeler you’re using can transfer bacteria to the edible parts.
Vegetables with lots of crevices (broccoli, cauliflower): Soak for two minutes before cutting, then rinse in a colander.
Vegetables with a thick skin (squash, zucchini): Brush skin under running water and rinse again before cutting.
Mushrooms (even fancy ones, like chanterelles): Despite the invention of the mushroom brush, mushrooms should still get a quick cold-water rinse, followed by a pat-down dry with paper towels. Clean out the gills in the cap with a fork and remove the stems.
The Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen
According to the Environmental Working Group, the following are the dirtiest and the cleanest fruits and vegetables with regard to their pesticide load.
These dirty fruits and veggies may take more than a soak and a gentle scrubbing to make them safe to eat. In fact, you might want to buy organic when it comes to these items:
3. Sweet bell peppers
10. Imported grapes
On the flip side, this list comprises what’s considered the cleanest produce, though I still recommend washing each of these thoroughly:
3. Sweet corn
7. Sweet peas
15. Sweet potatoes
Now that you know how to clean produce, you can start doling out advice like Produce Pete from The Daily Show. But whatever you do, pass it on. This is one bit of knowledge that’s important for all of us.