In my recent post about incorporating veggies into our breakfast menu, I mentioned that I don't have access to organic bell peppers where I live. Unless you live in a large-ish city or a very organic-y area (like Boulder or Portland...sigh...), chances are you've run into this problem too: there is not always an organic version of every fruit and vegetable available in all areas. Of course, we can change our menus to only include organic ingredients, or we can only use organic produce from our own gardens. But what if I just really, really want to put a bell pepper in my breakfast omelette?
Unfortunately, one of the main problems with pesticides is that they don't always stay nicely on the outside of the produce they are applied to. The Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen list of the 12 most pesticide-laden produce items was actually compiled using data from produce that had been washed and peeled. Even after washing and peeling the items, 97.8% of conventional apples still had traces of pesticides in them! So the obvious perfect-world solution is to just buy organic always (this has the added benefits of supporting organic methods with your food dollar and keeping additional pesticides out of the dirt, water supply, etc.). When it's not possible to buy organic, though, it's extremely important to wash produce thoroughly. Some pesticides find their way into the flesh of the produce, but the main concentration is still generally on the outside.
So what's the best way to get that produce clean? Well, many of us grew up thinking that a simple rinse in the sink was more than adequate. Grocery stores and natural foods stores have several varieties of produce wash to choose from, and the internet abounds with advice. What's the best?
I did some investigating this morning with a lovely 2 pounds of blueberries. The grocery store seemed to be fresh out of organic berries, so I sprung for the fantastic sale on conventional berries. I didn't realize at the time that my copy of the Dirty Dozen was out of date, and blueberries are number 10 on the updated top-pesticide residue list. Alas. Anyway, I divided them up into groups, tried some different methods for washing, and evalutated the results:
A: Soak in slightly sudsy dishsoap-y water for 5 minutes (then rinse): Berries had no waxy residue appearance.
B+: Soak in lemon juice/baking soda solution for 5 minutes (then rinse): Berries had very little waxy residue appearance
B+: Soak in Apple Cider Vinegar solution for 5 minutes (then rinse): Berries had very little waxy residue appearance
C-: Rinse with water: Berries still looked just like unwashed berries, with all the waxy residue apparently intact.
Now, this wasn't exactly a scientific test: I didn't have any pesticide-testing equipment to see how effective the washes were, I just had the appearance of the fruit. But the difference in appearance was quite noticeable. After coming to my own conclusions, I asked my husband which batches he thought looked cleanest and dirtiest, and he chose exactly the way I did.
It makes sense that the dishsoap would do a great job removing a waxy, petroleum-based residue on fruit, since it is made specifically to cut grease. However, the apple cider vinegar solution and the lemon juice/baking soda solution have the advantage that they are both made of entirely edible ingredients. If they don't get rinsed off very thoroughly, they won't do any harm, as the dishsoap might if it's not rinsed well. I'm always suspicious of cleaning solutions that combine an acid and a base, though, like the lemon juice/baking soda solution. They react in the bowl when they are combined, before any fruit is added... so then aren't they pretty much neutralizing each other and not doing any good?
Anyway, the result is pretty clear: take an extra few minutes to wash your produce well, with any of the above solutions, or a commercial product. They really do clean better than water alone.
Take heed: after you wash the waxy residue off your produce, it will probably have a reduced shelf life (since it has lost its protective coating). So don't wash your produce until you're ready to use it, especially for fast-spoiling or delicate foods like berries.
What do you think? Do you use any particular product or concoction to clean your produce? What works well for you?
Sources: EWG's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides
Posted at Simple Lives Thursday at GNOWFGLINS