There's no arguing with the health benefits of fresh, raw fruits and vegetable... and yet it seems that you can’t scroll through your newsfeed these days without hearing about another produce contamination scandal and subsequent product recall due to foodborne illness.
With bacteria growing ever more resistant to antibiotics, now more than ever, it's important to be the last line of defense between your family and foodborne illness. But according to a 2016 survey by the FDA, only about half of people wash bagged or prepared produce, like the romaine lettuce at the heart of the latest contamination scandal, before consuming it.
To help you protect yourself and your family, here are three things you probably didn’t know about keeping produce clean. This could be the difference between a healthy, happy family and falling victim to of one of the next scares.
1. Organic produce still needs to be washed
If you’re buying organic, you might be convinced that you don’t need to wash your produce; after all, one of the major health benefits of consuming organic is that you don't need to worry about added chemicals, right?
In fact, the misconception that you don't need to wash organic fruits and veggies is far from the reality.
Jaydee Hansen, Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Food Safety, notes that all produce – even organic apples or carrots from your own garden – need to be washed before consumption.
“Organic produce needs to be washed, as it still can have pathogens on it,” he says.
Some pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides are approved for organic, such as copper sulfate, which is a common fungicide approved for use in organic that is nevertheless linked to health problems when consumed in large doses. Add to this the fact that organic produce can be contaminated due to spray drift, that it might be coated in wax if shipped long distances, and that no produce is immune to bacterial contamination, and it's no surprise that washing is still important, even when you're buying organic.
Opt for organic whenever you can, especially for items on EWG’s Dirty Dozen list, which are the items most likely to be contaminated with pesticides... but remember that doesn't exempt you from washing before you dig in.
2. Rinsing is not enough to prevent foodborne illness
When you’re washing your produce, how do you usually go about it?
If you’re like many people, a quick rinse under a stream of running water is probably the most you do – and it’s not enough. Washing off any visible dirt or residue will certainly make your produce taste better, but it isn’t enough to remove bacteria or pesticides from the outside of your fruits and vegetables.
“The safest way to wash produce, including that which is labeled ‘already washed,’ is to wash or rinse it three times,” explains Hansen.
One study from The Department of Analytical Chemistry at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found that at least 30 seconds of rinsing is best to "significantly reduce" the presence of pesticides and fungicides from the surface of your produce, and friction is important to ensure you're actually getting all traces off, so investing in a scrub brush that you use specifically for your fruits and veggies may be a good idea.
3. Your best line of defense? Acid.
If you want to be very sure your produce is clean, you could also opt to use an additional product to help you remove any residues.
Some old wives’ tales point to vinegar as the ideal substance, seeing as it’s safe for consumption and you probably already have it lying around, but while a study from the University of Florida found that rinsing produce with a 10 percent vinegar solution reduced both viruses and bacteria by more than 90 percent, this homegrown solution can be problematic, both because it imparts a vinegar flavor to produce and because it might not be enough to remove oily or waxy coatings.
For Hansen, a combination of three basic ingredients can help keep produce super clean and devoid of any pathogens or chemicals: a weak acid, a salt, and a surfactant to loosen oils and waxes present in pesticide sprays and wax coatings. All three are present in eatCleaner, a product invented by Mareya Ibrahim, chef and holistic nutrition expert that also contains calcium carbonate and ascorbic acid; these antioxidants have been proven to extend the shelf life of produce naturally.
Tests performed by third-party labs have shown that eatCleaner can remove up to 99.8 percent of chemicals like herbicides atrazine and simazine from the surface of produce and can kill off bacteria like E. coli and Listeria present on raw leafy greens in 120 seconds of contact time. A recent test even showed that the product could remove 97 percent of pesticides from porous fruits like strawberries, without changing the flavor of the food itself.
A product like eatCleaner is especially useful if you can't source organic produce for whatever reason.
"I love what organic means," says Ibrahim. "I grew up in the industry; I love that the whole goal is to take care of the earth and to take care of our health. But the truth is that not everybody has access to it, and we have to give people other solutions that work.”
Whatever solutions you choose, washing produce properly will help you ensure that you're keeping your family safe, healthy, and happy.
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