Does Washing Fruits and Vegetables Prevent Foodborne Illnesses?

Properly washing fruits and vegetables can be a big concern, especially if you buy conventional produce. But does rinsing your food really make a difference in preventing foodborne illnesses?

Michael Doyle, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia and director of its Center for Food Safety, told the Wall Street Journal there are two main concerns: pesticides, which he doesn’t worry much about, and microorganisms that can cause foodborne illnesses, which he does.

“There have been lots of studies done by the government showing that pesticide contaminant tends to be at levels that are below health concerns,” he says.

The serious threat on the skin of your fruits and vegetables is microorganisms—salmonella, listeria and certain strains of E. coli. Fruit and vegetable microorganism exposure sickens more people than similar exposure on meat, Dr. Doyle says.

“Washing produce with tap water should help reduce residual pesticides and any dirt on the surface, where listeria and other bacteria often harbor,” he says. But if harmful bacteria are deep within leafy greens, “the extra washing you do at home isn’t going to help,” he says.

Once microorganisms become trapped within cut leaves of greens, “there is no washing it out, no matter what you do,” says Dr. Doyle. “This may be one reason why bag salads and cut greens have been some of the biggest culprits in spreading foodborne illnesses recently.”

Doyle recommends buying uncut greens, removing the outer leaves and rinsing the remaining leaves. The same should be done for herbs.

While store-bought produce washes and homemade mixes can kill microorganisms, washing your produce in tap water for 20 seconds or more is just as effective.

So, what should you do? Know that there’s always a bit of risk in eating fresh fruits and vegetables. You can reduce the risk by rinsing under the tap for 20 seconds. And, know that your body can handle small amounts of microorganisms. Plus, the nutrient density of fresh produce makes taking the small risk worth it. For higher risk produce like alfalfa and bean sprouts, choose cooked rather than raw to reduce your risk for these veggies even more.

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Image: Sharon Drummond