Eating a varied diet, including plenty of fruits and vegetables, is one of the keys to good health. However, to stay healthy, it's equally important to makes sure the produce you consume is safe to eat. One way to do that is to make sure any fruits or vegetables you use have been washed well before you peel, cut, eat, or cook with them.
How Fruits and Vegetables Become Contaminated
Although most consumers understand that meat products need to be properly handled to prevent food-borne illnesses, some do not realize that fruits and vegetables may also cause illness if not handled and stored properly. In fact, in recent years, contaminated fruits and vegetables have been the culprit in several large outbreaks of food-borne illness. Some of the ways that fruits and vegetables can become contaminated include:
- Harmful substances present in the soil or water during the growing phase.
- Poor hygiene among workers during harvest, packing, and transporting.
- Start by choosing produce that's free of bruises, mold, or other signs of damage. If you are purchasing precut items, make sure they have been refrigerated or displayed on ice at the supermarket.
- Once home, store perishable fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator (at 40 degrees F or below) until you're ready to use them. Always store precut fruits and vegetables in the refrigerator, too.
- Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and warm water before and after handling fresh produce.
- Use a sharp paring knife to cut away any damaged or bruised areas of the fruit or vegetable.
- Wash the produce before you peel it. That way, contaminants will not be transferred from your knife to the fruit or vegetable.
- Hold the fruit or vegetable under cool running tap water, gently rubbing it as you rinse it.
- For firm produce, such as melons and winter squash, use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the surface as you rinse it.
- Produce with bumpy, uneven surfaces, such as cauliflower and broccoli, should be soaked for 1 to 2 minutes in cold water to remove contaminants from the nooks and crannies.
- Use a clean cloth or paper towel to dry the produce before using it.
How to Wash Salad Greens
Salad greens require special attention. First, discard the wilted outer leaves; then prep and wash greens as directed for each type.
- For leafy lettuces, such as green or red-tip leaf, butterhead, and romaine as well as endive, remove and discard the root end. Separate leaves and hold them under cold running water to remove any dirt.
- For smaller greens, such as spinach and arugula, swirl them in a bowl or a clean sink filled with cold water about 30 seconds. Remove the leaves and shake gently to let dirt and other debris fall into the water. Repeat the process if necessary. Drain in a colander.
- For iceberg lettuce, remove the core by hitting the stem end on the countertop; twist and lift out the core. (Do not use a knife to cut out the core, as this can cause the lettuce to brown). Hold the head, core side up under cold running water, pulling leaves apart slightly. Invert the head and drain thoroughly. Repeat if necessary.
- For mesclun (a mixture of young, small salad greens often available in bulk at farmers markets), rinse in a colander or the basket of a salad spinner.
How to Clean Mushrooms
Other Tips for Washing Fruits and Vegetables
- Do not use soap or detergents when washing produce.
- You need not seek out a special produce wash to clean fruits and vegetables. Cool, clean, running tap water is fine.
- Wash all produce before using, even if you are going to peel it. Any dirt and bacteria on the outside of unwashed produce can be transferred from the knife into the fruit or vegetable.
Tip: Even organic fruits and vegetables, as well as produce from your own garden or local farmer's markets, should be washed well.