Do I Really Need to Bother Washing My Produce?

Millions of Americans acquire foodborne illnesses each year.

Aug 28 2017, 4:00pm

Peyton Weikier/Stocksy

The Scenario: Your friend's quite the role model, finding ways to sneak fruits and veggies into every meal. An apple at breakfast, leafy greens at lunch, and roasted vegetables at dinner. You admire his plant-focused diet, really, but you've never once seen him rinse a plum before digging his teeth into its juicy flesh. You get it—washing food is annoying, it's inconvenient, and uses up water. But now you envision bacteria and pesticides blanketing his carrot snacks. Is that just your mild germaphobia talking or should he have second thoughts before digging in?

The Facts: An apple-a-day habit may keep you healthy, but it's true: Your fruits and veggies can pack some serious pathogens. According to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, produce causes an estimated 46 percent of the more than 9 million foodborne illnesses in the United States every year. Most of the time, that means an aching stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea. In about 3,000 cases a year, foodborne illness leads to death—but only 23 percent of those cases (around 700) involved eating contaminated produce, the CDC found.

That said, we don't expect a water-only rinse to wash nasty bathroom bacteria off our hands, so why do we expect it to work for our food? It seems contradictory. When researchers purposely doused leafy lettuce with Salmonella enterica, they found the only way to wash it off was to soak the greens in sodium hypochlorite—basically, laundry bleach—for 15 minutes and then rinse it with water, according to a study published last year in Frontiers in Microbiology.

To be fair, that was artificial contamination to a drastic degree. "In real-life scenarios, when vegetables are contaminated by foodborne pathogens, we observe very low levels of contamination that could be simply reduced through intensive washing under tap water," says study author Carmen Losasso, a biochemist whose research focuses in part on food safety.

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And what about the pesticide problem? You would hope the people growing your food use safe practices, but that's not guaranteed. "Not everybody is a conscientious person as they grow vegetables, so it's just a good idea for you as a consumer to wash everything," says Michael Mahovic, chief of the fresh produce branch in the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the FDA. One study conducted by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found that rinsing produce for at least 30 seconds "significantly reduced" nine of twelve common pesticides. Plain old H20 was also just as effective as the fancier store-bought produce washes.

The Worst That Can Happen: The fruits and vegetables on your plate could be crawling with the usual bacterial suspects—Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Listeria monocytogenes—but also parasites, chemicals, and viruses like Hepatitis A and norovirus, Mahovic says. A 2015 study in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease found that Salmonella and norovirus are the leading causes of produce-related outbreaks in the US.

Most of these foodborne pathogens, aside from Hepatitis A, cause symptoms including stomach cramps, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, and chills. Usually, these infections are miserable but nothing to lose your head over—you'll feel like hell for a few days, and then it will pass. But particularly susceptible people—think the young, old, pregnant, and immunocompromised—could suffer more serious health impacts.

As for pesticides, there's still a lot we don't know about the risks of exposure to adults. Over time, you could have a greater risk of developing cancerous tumors, as one researcher told Consumer Reports in 2015, but it's hard to say if that risk qualifies as significant. If your friend has kids, he or she might have a more legitimate reason to be concerned: Years of research have previously linked pesticide exposure to developmental delays and lower IQ in adolescence. So if your "friend" happens to be a parent—expectant or otherwise—we get why a quick soak under the tap might do wonders for their peace of mind.

What'll Probably Happen: Skipping the rinse? You probably won't eat anything harmful, anyway: Last year, food inspectors tested more than 31,000 pieces of fresh produce in Canada for bacterial presence, and only about 1 percent of the samples came back positive, according to research published in Food Control.

Plus, if you do eat some bacteria, the chances are low that you'll even notice. "Quite frankly, most often these pathogens will be at such a low level that you may eat them and your body will just fight it off," Mahovic says. "You'll never even know it was there."

What Your Friend Should Do: If your friend is such a great role model, then yes, he should rinse his fresh fruits and veggies under cold, running water, Mahovic says. (Never soak your food in the sink or a bowl, as that could contaminate it more.) That's not enough to clean our dirty hands, but for produce with a very minor dusting of pathogens, it's sufficient. "When you start to get very, very, very low numbers of bacteria, it's very difficult to pull those off of produce or to eliminate them," he adds.

Cooking your produce is another "kill step" in the life of foodborne pathogens. The high heat effectively kills off bacteria, but you still want to give it a rinse—or a scrub if it has firm flesh that can stand up to some force—to wash off residual dirt.

If your friend does end up buying an on-the-run snack from a street-side fruit stand, he can go on and eat it. "You're taking something that is a very, very minimal risk in the first place, and you're turning it into a miniscule risk by going through that washing step," Mahovic says.

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