The fresh produce you buy at the grocery store may look clean, but there’s always a chance it’s contaminated with bacteria, bits of dirt, or even pieces of insects.
While a little dirt (and even a few bug bits) may not be harmful to your health, bacteria such as listeria,salmonella, and E. coli that may be lurking on your fruits and veggies can cause foodborne illness.
It’s important to note that whether produce is organically grown or conventionally grown, the risk of bacterial contamination remains. People often choose to buy locally-grown, organic produce in hopes of lowering their risk of ingesting potentially harmful chemicals from pesticides and herbicides, though buying organic tends to be more expensive and can be harder to access.
The best defense is learning how to wash vegetables and fruit properly. Good food handling and kitchen-cleaning practices prevent foodborne illness and help remove the residue pesticides or herbicides may leave behind.
Effects of Pesticides
Non-organic farmers use pesticides to kill weeds and insects that threaten the growth and quality of the produce they grow. As the plants grow, these pesticides are absorbed. Residue can linger on the skin of produce even after it’s been washed.
Conventional chemical pesticides have been linked to a number of potential health effects, including neurological problems, hormonal disruptions, and some forms of cancer.
Children may be particularly sensitive to pesticides: Some studies have found exposure to these chemicals may contribute to neurological problems in children which may impair learning, memory, and attention. One possible explanation for their increased sensitivity is that children eat more food relative to their size than adults do, and are therefore less capable of processing any chemicals that enter by way of produce.
The Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen
You may be able to reduce your exposure to pesticides by choosing certified organic products grown using less chemical-based fertilizer. It’s been estimated that consumers who avoid eating non-organically grown produce on the “Dirty Dozen” list can reduce their pesticide exposure by up to 80 percent.
The list is compiled annually by the Environmental Working Group using data (2019) from approximately 96,000 studies by the USDA and FDA. It presents a ranked list of produce by their potential to increase consumers’ pesticide exposure.
Foods More Likely to Have Pesticides
The Clean 15 (EWG 2019)
By contrast, the report’s “Clean 15” list highlights produce that is less likely to have pesticides. These fruits and vegetables are considered safer to purchase when conventionally-grown—either due to how the produce is eaten or because it is protected from pesticides due to how it’s grown or cultivated.
Foods Less Likely to Have Pesticides
- Sweet corn
- Sweet peas
- Honeydew melon
Pesticide Residue on Popular Produce
The fruits and vegetables included on this list come after the “Dirty Dozen.” Their rank is also based on how these fruits and vegetables are most often eaten: for example, whether they are typically washed (apples) or peeled (bananas).
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Green beans
- Winter squash
- Snap peas
- Summer squash
- Sweet potatoes
Why Wash Produce?
Unless they’re covered in dirt when you bring them home, it’s usually best to wash vegetables and fruit right before you use them. Most types of produce have natural coatings that keep moisture inside, so washing may make them spoil more quickly. Berries are especially prone to mold growth if they’re washed then stored in the fridge.
Keep your kitchen countertops, refrigerator, cookware, and cutlery clean.
Always wash your hands before handling fruits and vegetables.
How to Wash Vegetables
Wash all pre-packaged produce like salad mixes and bagged spinach, even if the label claims the contents are pre-washed. It’s possible the leaves may have been exposed to bacteria or contain contaminants that were missed.
For firm vegetables like potatoes, start by rubbing them under running water. Don’t use any soaps, detergents, bleaches, or other toxic cleaning chemicals. Commercial produce sprays aren’t any better than a thorough cleaning with plain water and the chemicals in these washes can leave a residue on the skin and affect its flavor.
For lettuce and cabbage, remove and discard the outer leaves then thoroughly rinse the rest. Greens like beet tops or Swiss chard are especially likely to harbor bits of sand and dirt, so you may want to rinse them twice.
All mushrooms need is gentle brushing; no water needed. In fact, rinsing them with water may make them more difficult to clean.
How to Wash Fruit
Firm produce like apples can be scrubbed with a brush while rinsing with clean water. Be sure to keep your produce brush clean between uses.
Once washed, let any loose fruit like berries or grapes drain in a colander. When you’re ready to serve or prepare, transfer them to clean bowls or cookware.
Finally, make sure to always keep your clean, ready-to-serve produce away from raw eggs, meats, poultry, or seafood, as these sources harbor bacteria and may recontaminate them.
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