It seems like every few months I hear some terrible story in the news about how something as healthy and seemingly safe as produce made people sick, because it was tainted with a nasty pathogen like E. coli or salmonella. Alfalfa sprouts seem particularly notorious because their growing conditions are often the perfect environment for promoting microbial growth and they’re eaten raw, but produce processed with contaminated water or fertilized with fresh manure may also be ideal candidates for food-borne illnesses according to the Center for Disease Control. Plus, produce at home can be a problem if it’s exposed to icky germs from using unsanitary knifes or cutting boards, or if it comes into contact with meat or fish juices, for example.
Now, considering I buy my fair share of store-bought produce, but also grow some of my own, I thought it was high time to explore some common ways to remove pesticides, dirt, bacteria, viruses, and waxes from produce at home. I really wanted to determine which ones seem the most effective and healthy, safe, and eco-friendly.
If you’ve wondered the same thing, read on to discover what I unearthed after doing some investigative research to figure out which products and methods work best. The information may very well surprise you!
As you’ll see, there are many good ways, so you may opt for more than one method and decide to use combination approach to cleaning your fruits and veggies. Let me know which one(s) work best for you or sound the most appealing. And if you have any additional tips or useful information, please share them by leaving a comment.
1. Chlorine Bleach
Chlorine bleach solutions are a federally approved method (per regulation 21 CFR Part 173) for “sanitizing raw fruits and vegetables during the washing or peeling process” in food processing operations as described in this document by the Robert M. Kerr Food & Agricultural Products Center of Oklahoma State University. They do a great job of reducing bacteria and viruses by at least 98% and are extremely effective at reducing E. coli from lettuce according to these 2003 and 2013 studies published in the Journal of Food Protection, respectively.
But do your really want to wash something you eat with bleach? Because some fruits and veggies may be more porous or thin-skinned than others, they could easily absorb the chemicals found in bleach, such as additives like fragrance. Also, you could possibly add too much going well over the recommended limit of 2000 ppm. And if you’re soaking something, such as a head of lettuce or broccoli, for several minutes, it’s definitely going to absorb more.
Therefore, considering bleach is not healthy for you or the environment, it’s not anywhere at the top of my list as a safe produce wash at home.
2. Baking Soda
Baking soda, which is also known as sodium bicarbonate, is an alkaline salt that makes an eco-friendly and effective produce wash. It’s also one of the ingredients in many commercial washes, such as Fit Produce Wash.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers it a natural biopesticide, so it’s especially great at killing germs. It’s also fantastic as a natural green cleaner for your home as I discuss in “5 Green Cleaning Products You Can Make with Baking Soda.”
To use it, simply add a few tablespoons of baking soda to a bowl of water when soaking your fruits and vegetables, which should be done a few good minutes before rinsing them with fresh cold water. Or, shake some baking soda on produce and scrub away with a produce brush. By the way, this method is especially great for things like musk melons, because their rinds have all kinds of nooks and crannies that love to trap microbes and dirt.
3. Commercial Produce Washes
You’ve probably seen Fit produce wash at your local grocery store as it’s a very popular commercial wash. According to the manufacturer’s website, the product removes “98% more pesticides, waxes, people-handling residues, and other contaminants vs. washing with water alone.” Also, a 2001 study published in the Journal of Food Protection showed that a prototype Fit produce wash reduced Salmonella from tomatoes better than other methods.
So, it definitely seems effective, but I was surprised with a few of the ingredients it contains, such as potassium hydroxide, which is used in many oven and drain cleaners.
Also, as I discuss below, I discovered that some other methods are just as effective as the Fit product and even cheaper and more eco-friendly, so you may not really need it — or want it. By the way, if you’d like more information about the Fit produce wash, check out my review.
4. Dishwashing Detergent/Soap
Soaps and detergents may wash away some germs and soil, but they also may leave behind fake fragrances, synthetic dyes, Triclosan, and other harmful chemicals — things you don’t necessarily want to be eating!
Many of these chemicals are associated with a host of health and/or environmental problems, so I recommend reserving the soap for scrubbing pots and pans and using something else instead that is food friendly.
The FDA would agree as it states that “Washing fruits and vegetables with soap or detergent or using commercial produce washes is not recommended.”
5. Hydrogen Peroxide
Hydrogen peroxide at a concentration of 0.5% is slightly less effective than chlorine bleach according to a 2003 study, plus it causes strawberries to discolor. Also, according to another study published in the Journal of International Food Microbiology that was done on whole cantaloupes and honeydew melons contaminated with E. coli and Listeria monocytogenes, a 2.5% concentration of hydrogen peroxide still left some pathogens on the fruit, whereas a combination of hydrogen peroxide and other three other natural food sanitizers (i.e., citric acid, sodium lactate, and nisin) was found to be much more effective.
So it seems hydrogen peroxide by itself is a fair to good produce wash (depending on the study you’re looking at), but it might be more effective in combination with other methods. What does this mean for you at home? Well, if you like using hydrogen peroxide, maybe follow it with something acidic like vinegar, lemon juice, or even distilled water to ensure thorough disinfecting.
6. Lemon Juice
Lemon juice, which naturally contains citric acid, is used in green cleaning for its effective and eco-friendly disinfectant and bleaching qualities, so it makes sense that it would also be something to consider for safely disinfecting produce.
Although, I couldn’t find any scientific studies specific to using lemon juice in washing produce, I did find a few that addressed citric acid washes. For example, this 2010 Journal of Food Science study showed that leaving cabbage soaking in a 1% citric acid solution for 5 minutes significantly reduced microbial populations, but so did other methods.
Also, citric acid in combination with alkaline electrolyzed water (which you can make at home with a pricey alkaline water machine) was shown to cut down on microbes and enhance the shelf life of shredded carrots according to a 2011 study in the Journal of Food Microbiology.
I personally haven’t used lemon juice to clean that much produce, except for lettuce, but I’ve used it clean and remove faint odors from poultry and fish. It works every time like a charm!
7. Produce Brushes
A not-so-official study done by Cook’s Illustrated that was reported on by NPR, showed that giving produce a good scrub with a produce brush reduced bacteria by 85%. So, it seems using a veggie brush in combination with another natural method would really get your produce clean in a very green way. Plus, it would help remove those not-so-appetizing waxes you often find naturally on cucumbers and artificially on apples.
I prefer the wooden ones with natural bristles, but the recycled plastic ones are available in a variety of snazzy colors and are another eco-friendly option as well.
Sodium chloride, which is simply table salt, in a 2% concentrated salt-water solution reduces viruses by 90% according a 2003 study in the Journal of Food Protection, but it isn’t as effective in reducing bacteria as vinegar. Therefore, salt wouldn’t be my first choice, but it’s a great “back-up” ingredient to keep in mind.
But do you know what I would use salt for? In combination with a little baking soda and water, it makes a great scrub for naturally cleaning, disinfecting, and bleaching cutting boards. (If you cut meat or poultry on your board, also spray it with vinegar or hydrogen peroxide after scrubbing it to disinfect it even more.) Note: After scrubbing and/or disinfecting your cutting boards, also thoroughly wash them with some green dish soap and hot water.
Vinegar could very well be considered the king of green cleaning as it’s great for so many household cleaning uses, including washing your fruits and veggies. According to the 2003 study published in the Journal of Food Protection, a 10% vinegar wash reduced bacteria by 95% and viruses by about 90%! Impressive, huh?
In the Cook’s Illustrated study a wash consisting of 3 parts water to one part vinegar reduced bacteria by 98% and was found more effective than scrubbing, using regular water, or antibacterial soap when it came to washing pears and apples. However, the study authors did use the vinegar rinse followed by a water rinse (most likely to remove any vinegar taste). In other words, they washed it twice! So maybe that process in combination with the fact they used more vinegar, is why they found it slightly more effective than the Journal of Food Protection study.
As I use vinegar to clean just about everything in my home, I really like the idea of using it to clean produce as well. I’d definitely rinse it off with water, though. So, I suggest putting some in a store-bought spray bottle under your kitchen sink. You’ll find yourself reaching for it often to clean your kitchen counters, cook top, stainless steel appliances, and more.
10. Water (Plain and Distilled)
Good old H2O often does the job and is what the FDA and several other sources recommend for washing your produce at home. It’s not perfect, but it’s obviously a safe and eco-friendly choice available to everyone.
It especially works well in combination with some gentle agitation as a 2003 study in the Journal of Food Protection showed. Just putting strawberries in some water and gently shaking them around for a couple minutes reduced microbial populations significantly. So, at the very least, shake those veggies and fruits around in a colander while rinsing them or in a bowl of water before enjoying them!
Also, another good idea is to leave your produce whole before washing it. It helps reduce microbial populations even further as a new 2014 study published in the International Journal of Food Microbiology shows.
But did you know that distilled water may even be better? As noted in this University of Maine article, a study done by the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition tested distilled water, Fit produce wash, an ozone water purifier, and a food sterilizer. They found that distilled water and the Fit product were equally effective in reducing pesticides and microbes. In addition, they found distilled water was even better than the ozone water purifier and food sterilizer in zapping pathogens.
Therefore, hands down, distilled water seems like a clear winner it my book. It works. It’s safe. It’s green. It’s natural. It doesn’t leave behind any weird taste or residues. And it’s really inexpensive!
Updated on April 11, 2016
Copyright © Karen Peltier and Well Gal, 2014. All rights reserved.
Photos © Karen Peltier and Well Gal, 2014.