7 Mistakes You Make When Washing Produce

couple washing produce
Photo by Platoo Fotography / Shutterstock.com

The internet has been abuzz with the question: Should you wash fruit and vegetables with soap to get rid of the coronavirus?

Soap and water seems intuitively to be the right way to go. After all, if that’s good for cleaning our bodies, shouldn’t it also be good for food?

Actually, no. Soap is not safe on food. Don’t use it to wash apples, broccoli, tomatoes or any other fruits and vegetables.

Here’s why — and how to avoid making that and other well-intentioned mistakes when washing produce.

1. Washing produce with soap

Using soap to clean produce would seem logical, since washing your hands with soap and water is recommended as a way to kill the coronavirus. But experts say you should avoid using soap or detergent to wash produce.

In fact, health authorities don’t advise giving fresh produce any special treatment for coronavirus, which is thought to be spread primarily person-to-person through respiratory droplets. The Food and Drug Administration’s FAQs for consumers state:

“Currently there is no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with transmission of COVID-19.”

Additionally, washing produce with soap is likely to cause you to ingest some with the food, which can cause diarrhea or vomiting, says the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clean produce before eating it.

Unwashed fruits and vegetables can harbor harmful bacteria, including salmonella, E. coli and listeria, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These germs on fresh produce probably are responsible for much of the foodborne illnesses in the U.S.

Here’s how the FDA says to wash produce:

“Rinse whole fruits and vegetables under running water and dry with a clean cloth, paper towel, or salad spinner.”

2. Mixing cleaning chemicals

Household chemicals can make effective cleaning agents, but some are especially dangerous when combined, as you’ll learn in “Never Mix These 4 Combinations of Cleaners.”

Case in point: The CDC reports the recent case of a woman who, believing it important to clean fruits and vegetables to avoid coronavirus, soaked produce at home in a mixture of bleach, vinegar and hot water. But mixing chlorine bleach with an acid like vinegar can create dangerous chlorine gas.

The woman called 911 after suffering problems breathing, coughing and wheezing. She was taken to emergency care by ambulance and treated for mild hypoxemia (inadequate oxygen levels) before being released. Read the full story in “Poison Center Calls Spike as COVID-19 Spreads: Are You Safe?

3. Forgetting to wash your hands

Always wash your hands before handling produce or touching any food.

Here is the first rule of the FDA’s Food Safe Meal Prep: Before preparing any food, including produce, wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.

4. Washing fruit and vegetables too soon

Washing fruits and vegetables as soon you get them home seems like a smart habit. But it’s best to wait to wash produce until you need it.

Dampness encourages the growth of bacteria, increasing the chance of spoilage, food research scientist Amanda Deering of Purdue University tells The Washington Post.

The advice goes double for berries. Hold off washing until just before you eat these fragile fruits so they don’t get mushy or otherwise break down, Better Homes & Gardens advises.

You can rinse strawberries in a colander under running water. However, the pressure from running water can crush fragile raspberries, blackberries, boysenberries and blueberries. So, place those berries gently into a colander and dip it in a bowl of cold water, floating and swishing the fruit to loosen dirt and bacteria.

Let the berries drain and spread them on a layer of paper towels. Cover with another paper towel and carefully pat them dry.

5. Spending money on produce wash

Commercial produce washes are a waste of money, expert sources agree.

When University of Maine researchers tested three commercial produce wash products, they concluded that costly produce washes were no more effective than rinsing produce with plain water.

The researchers recommend soaking fruits and vegetables in clean tap water or distilled water for one to two minutes to reduce any contamination from germs.

6. Washing ‘pre-washed’ produce

Plenty of consumers who try to do the right thing can be forgiven for believing that washing all produce applies even to packaged lettuce, spinach and other vegetables. But you don’t need to wash fruits and vegetables packaged with labels like “ready to eat,” “washed,” “prewashed” and “triple washed,” the University of Maine Extension says.

Other sources agree. The FDA says that if you do wash these pre-cleaned foods, be careful:

“If you choose to wash produce marked as ‘pre-washed’ or ‘ready-to-eat,’ be sure that it does not come in contact with unclean surfaces or utensils. This will help to avoid cross contamination.”

7. Not washing fruit with a peel

The skin on a fruit or vegetable protects it, so you may expect that the flesh inside should be clean. But the outer layer or skin can hold residue of pesticides, dirt or germs. The CDC warns:

“Germs on the peeling or skin can get inside fruits and vegetables when you cut them.”

Make sure, then, to wash or scrub even produce that has a peel.

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