Thursday, June 16, 2011

Most Effective Ways to Wash Conventional Produce

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  I didn't realize at the time that my copy of the Dirty Dozen was out of date, and blueberries are number 10 on the updated top-pesticide residue list.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


  1. Ooh... As I was reading this I was shaking my head wondering what you were going to do with 2 lbs of washed blueberries in the short time you have before they spoil. (My preferred method of blueberry consumption is eating the raw from the bowl like candy... yum! But I don't think I could get through 2 lbs, even with help!)
    I am so glad you added the caution at the end of your post, very important! Actually most resources I have come accross recommend STORING your produce UNWASHED for the longest shelf life. Then WASHING only right before consumption and/or cooking. This is especially important for things like berries.
    If the thought of unwashed produce in your house grosses you out-- your next best bet it to get your produce as dry as possible before storing. Small things like berries can be put in a salad spinner to get most of the moisture off, then spread them in a single layer on a cookie sheet to air dry before returning them to the fridge. At this point, store larger produce items loose in the fridge and small things like berries in a open container (or the plastic tub thing with holes that they often come from the store in, once rinsed out works superbly!)
    And... there is my two cents on washing your produce! :)

  2. Hi, Valerie, family and I are blueberry-aholics, and we had no trouble finishing off the whole 2 pounds in a day. Yes, raw from the bowl like candy! Delicious!

    Sometimes it seems like it would be convenient to prewash things (like lettuce for salads for the whole week or something). But they do always seem to go bad faster when they are prewashed. Thank you for the tips. :) Does having unwashed produce in the house gross you out?

  3. I'm wondering - are you washing off chemicals, or the natural protective coating?

    "Blueberries grow in clusters and range in size from that of a small pea to a marble. They are deep in color, ranging from blue to maroon to purple-black, and feature a white-gray waxy "bloom" that covers the berry's surface and serves as a protective coat. "

    I generally just stick with the water rinse, as they are not typically a heavily sprayed crop.

  4. Hi, Laurie,
    Good question. Haha, you're probably right about the protective coating. Looks like blueberries were not an ideal experiment subject! I was mainly trying to figure out what would work for all produce, and blueberries were the only unwashed thing I had handy. I will have to repeat the experiment with something more heavily sprayed/waxed/coated and see if I have similar results.

    It seems like non-blueberry produce (like peppers, tomatoes, or apples) would have more durable, man-made coatings that would require something stronger than water to remove. What do you use?

  5. Cucumbers might be a good subject of this experiment.

  6. Thanks, Rebekah! I will definitely be trying some different produce next time!

  7. Reminder to self, update my own copy of the dirty dozen! Yeah, when cash is short I only get those dozen items in organic and resort to conventional for everything else. No, I have not checked to see how old the list I carry! Thanks for the reminder!

  8. Ubermom, I totally didn't update my list until I wrote that post last week! Who knew things could change so much in a year? :)

  9. If I've got questionable produce (or just dirty produce), I usually use a dab of my CitraDish Valencia Orange dish soap. It's all non-toxic, and is supposed to cut grime. Plus, it smells fruity, not soapy. The soap smells almost good enough to eat on its own. Peeling is an option on a lot of things, too.

  10. Hi, Laurie,
    I haven't heard of CitraDish, but it sounds like a perfect product for produce (and dishes!). Anything natural that smells like Valencia Orange sounds good enough to eat. :)

  11. Thanks for the post. We eat almost all organic fruit, but my kids had a field trip to a conventional blueberry farm last week. I decided to research and went as far as your blog. ;-) We used water, apple cider vinegar and a drop or two of "conventional" (lol) dish soap. We dumped it into a pitcher, hand agitated and rinsed. They look cleaner, so fingers crossed ;-)

    FWIW, the farmer let us know that blueberries (at least his) are not washed before putting into plastic packaging. So it's very important to wash them because not only may they have pesticide residue, they may also have farm employee dirty hand residue.


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