Play it Again: The Great Debate- Washing our Fruits and Vegetables

Carton of blueberries

Originally Published March 2008

The debate isn't over whether we should actually wash our fruits and vegetables or not. Most people and "experts" agree, all produce should be washed before being eaten.

What is hotly debated, however, is why and with what. Some say we don't need to worry about pesticide residues, but only food-borne bacteria, and therefore rinsing in water is good enough. Others says that pesticide residue is a very real concern and we need to use specially formulated, organic (usually expensive) produce washes.

So who's right?

The articles out there say that the Government has performed tests (who's results are hard to find, by the way) showing that the amount of pesticide residues are very small, and that the trace amounts left behind are not harmful. However, these "trace amounts" have not been thoroughly tested and approved as being safe, nor has the cumulative effect of consuming trace amounts of numerous different pesticides over the long term been studied.

Many people will point out that the use of pesticides is becoming stricter, and that they are removing those considered dangerous. However, they are also adding new pesticides every year, and I think many of us would be surprised to find out how many and what types of chemicals are still ending up on our dinner tables. Here is a link to a chart detailing the chemical use on lettuce crops in California and Arizona in 2002- I do not think that this is extremely dissimilar from any other states or Canada, or that the list has changed much today.

There is somewhat of a difference between food crops, though, and this can help us to make wise decisions regarding what we buy (read a previous post of mine on this topic).

Personally, I am hesitant to believe the claim that the remaining pesticide residues are safe. Most things approved by the FDA have not gone through the rigorous studies that I believe are necessary to warrant them as being "safe", and more than that, they have not been studied in combination with other chemicals (because most chemicals have reactions or synergistic effects when mixed with other chemicals- meaning that they can become more potent or toxic together than on their own).

I do know that studies are coming out left, right and center showing increased rates of many types of cancers and other serious illnesses in the farmers and workers using these chemicals, and in the families whose nearby homes are affected by the crop sprays that travel through the air.

So how can we thoroughly wash our fruits and vegetables to avoid as many of these contaminants as possible?

There are many different thoughts on what is most effective. Unfortunately, most pesticide residues actually become absorbed by the produce, and become systemic and not capable of being washed off. However, there are still many residues that reside on the outer layer of produce, that can be removed as much as is possible by careful washing.

Here are a few general guidelines:

  1. Wash everything- regardless of what the item is, it is wise to at least briefly wash it, simply because it has been handled, has traveled, etc. and to simply reduce the risk of bacteria.
  2. Whenever possible, peel the skin from non-organic produce, such as apples, potatoes, carrots, zucchini, etc. If produce is organic, a simple wash with a good scrub brush should be sufficient, and allow you to keep the peels on, which contain a high level of nutrients.
  3. In root vegetables, most pesticides are concentrated around the top inch of the vegetable, so be sure to chop this area off. Whenever I use non-organic carrots, I also chop off more on the top that I do with organic.
  4. Foods that cannot be scrubbed or peeled (such as broccoli, berries, etc.) should be soaked in a sinkful of water and your choice of washing agent, before being thoroughly rinsed.
  5. Discard the outer leaves of leafy vegetables, like lettuce, before you thoroughly wash the inner leaves.

As far as what to use, opinions on this vary widely. It is very hard to wade through all of the different claims and arguments and decipher what is truly best. However, it seems that the best cleansers are those that contain some type of mild, natural surfactant, which basically helps to dissolve and wash away residues (please note, I don't claim to understand this very fully- there is a lot of science behind surfactants and soaps and detergents, etc. and hey, I'm just not a science-y kind of girl!).

Here is a list of safe and effective washes or make-your-own solutions that I know of:

Vinegar and Hydrogen Peroxide
The  basic method is to fill two spray bottles, one with vinegar and one with hydrogen peroxide (3%, the kind you can buy in the drug store). Spray the produce first with vinegar, and then with the peroxide, and allow to sit for a moment (scrubbing those items that need to be scrubbed), then rinse well under running water.

Vinegar and water
Another method I have heard of is to use equal parts vinegar and water and allow the vegetables to soak in it (scrubbing if necessary), before rinsing well.

Mild dish washing detergent
Use 1 tsp of detergent per gallon (4 litres) of water. Again, soak, scrub, rinse. Personally, I would only do  this with a more natural detergent, rather than a regular commercial one.

Use a pre-made produce wash such as:
Biokleen Produce Wash
Mom's Veggieswash
Nature Clean Produce Wash
There are many others out there. I've also heard that Shaklee and Amway make good washes.

What is the deal with these washes? They are generally made with non-toxic surfactants that help to break down and remove residues so that they can be rinsed off. They are usually quite mild, non-irritating, no dyes, biodegradable, etc. My particular brand (Biokleen) contains: Lime extracts, grapefruit seed and pulp extracts (a common ingredient in natural detergents), surfactants from coconut and/or corn, cold pressed orange oil and filtered water.

Is it really necessary to spend money on these name brand and more expensive washes? I'm not really convinced that they are necessarily better than a simple option such as vinegar or hydrogen peroxide, however for me, they feel simple to use. I don't find it expensive, because it is quite concentrated and one $4 bottle lasts me for a couple months. I try to wash as many items as I can each time I fill the sink with it, to help it go a little further.

There you have it. My take on the subject. This post actually took me far longer to write than I thought it would because I was trying to be thorough, and there is just so much information and controversy out there on the subject. I hope that I have been able to wade through the info and help to synthesize it a bit to help you make an informed decision.

What is your take on the issue? Do you wash your fruits and veggies with more than water? What method do you use?

About Stephanie Langford

Stephanie Langford has a passion for sharing ideas and information for homemakers who want to make healthy changes in their homes, and carefully steward all that they've been given. She has written three books geared to helping families live more naturally and eat real, whole foods, without being overwhelmed, without going broke and with simple meal planning. She is the creator of Keeper of the Home.

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Comments

  1. I can’t always afford a lot of organic produce. But choosing between non-organic produce and none, I’ll still pick non-organic. (I grow as many vegetables as possible at home during our shorter growing season in the north east, but I can’t grow everything, and I can’t even begin to tackle fruits). However, I’m always especially careful to scrub my daughter’s food with a baking soda paste. I figure that if baking soda is safe to clean my house with and will help kill mold and mildew in my bathroom it must make at least a dent in pesticide residue. Fortunately her favorites include bananas and oranges which have a heavy outer skin I can dispose of.

  2. I am just trying out Biokleen’s produce wash for the first time, and I found that putting it in a reused foaming soap dispenser at 1/3 soap 2/3 water is a perfect way to make washing produce simpler. I can put a squirt on my hands and cover 3 or 4 items with the suds. Easy!
    Katie

  3. I use the Biokleen produce wash and a coir scrub brush. My MIL only rinses her non-organic produce, grosses me out. Seems like it has a lot to do with how you were raised.

  4. I buy 99% organic fruits and veggies, but I still always wash them! The 1% non-organic is when I’m in a pinch and need something now, and the nearest store doesn’t have organic. Either way, I fill my clean sink with water and add about a cup of vinegar, so not a 1:1 ratio… hmmm. I let the produce soak for about 15 minutes with periodic swishing, then I drain and rinse once in a sink of plain water. I rinse a second time under running water, as I remove it.

    Usually with non-organic, I will use a tiny amount of dish soap as well, in the initial soak.

  5. Great article.
    I ‘fess to doing a quick wash or not to organics, and have been known to eat a whole basket of cherry tomatoes on the way home from the market, unwashed.

    I tend to peel more if not organic, but wasn’t aware of the concentration in the tops of the root veggies. Will have to handle that situation better.

    I’m not settled on the whole issue myself, but I also believe that when we are too fanatical about eliminating germs, we do damage to ourselves in the long run. ie antibacterial soaps, etc. But of course, big time YUCK to farmer workers with poor hygiene in the fields.

  6. I have been guilty of just rinsing organic produce with water ONLY and then eating it. (I do use a veggie wash on non-organic produce). However, the comments posted here have shed a new light on the subject – human waste in the fields. I’m fanatical about bathroom hygiene and it makes no sense to be so careful in one area and then brazen in another. I’ll be thinking of this post long after today and I believe it will reform my ways!!!

  7. Kika - central Alberta says:

    I tend to use just water or water/vinegar combination. I use natural dish detergent to gently scrub melons before cutting into them. I didn’t know that root veggies contain higher levels of pesticides in the top inch so I’ll keep that in mind.

  8. Melonie K, I totally agree that organic produce still needs some kind of a wash, just as much as non-organic, more for the reason of bacteria from the fields, handling, etc. (Though I confess to having eaten my own small share of peas and cherry tomatoes straight from the garden or with only a quick rinse of the hose. :)

    Paula and Beatrice, I have no idea where the contaminations like E.coli bacteria come from exactly (though you could both be right, I’m sure). Good enough reasons to want to give everything some sort of a wash, though, right?

  9. I looked e. coli up on the internet and here’s a document put out by the Canadian government entitled:

    E. coli O157:H7 Food Safety Facts
    Preventing foodborne illness

    http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/fssa/concen/cause/ecolie.shtml

    This speaks to the earlier posts:

    “Raw fruits and vegetables can become contaminated with pathogens while in the field, by improperly composted manure, contaminated water, wildlife and poor hygienic practices of the farm workers.”

  10. Are you serious about migrant workers using the fields as toilets? I can’t imagine that.

    I thought it was from farms that use improperly composted human waste as ferilizer (used in some 2nd and 3rd world countries).

  11. I like your new blog header!

    I use the hydrogen peroxide/vinegar mix. Here’s my problem though. You know how we always have those “e-coli” outbreaks on berries, lettuce, whatever? E-coli is caused by poop, usually the migrants use the fields as their personal bathrooms and this how the crops get contaminated. How on earth is just rinsing with water getting rid of poop & the germs associated with it?

    I think about this every single time I buy produce grown. Well, not so much with the small, local farmers I’ve been buying from, but when I buy produce from the store.

    You should submit this to Real Food Wednesday (www.kellythekitchenkop.com or Food Renegade Fight Back Friday http://www.foodrenegade.com)

  12. I only buy organic or from a local farm. I only use water to wash and sometimes I just forget and eat it without washing. I honestly don’t give it that much thought, I do feel better that its organic.

  13. I just have to say that I’ve had folks say they don’t think organic produce needs to be rinsed/washed… but being farmed organically doesn’t mean that animals haven’t done their business on the plant and its fruits. My mom will eat lettuce and strawberries and such straight from the garden, saying “It’s okay, I didn’t spray it with anything!” and all I can think of is getting a big ol’ bite of bird “leftovers” in a bite. So I rinse, at the very least. ;-)

  14. When we lived in Egypt, we had to be very careful with fruits and vegetables because the farming techniques left unhealthy residue that often made foreigners ill. My housekeeper there washed all of our produce in a weak bleach/water solution followed by a freshwater rinse. It worked – we were never ill from food prepared in our own house.

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