All the More Reason: Why Washing Fruits and Vegetables is Essential

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Today, many options for eating a healthier diet will include an increased amount of raw fruits and vegetables. While some salads advertise themselves as “pre-washed,” what’s the next step with many of our brightly colored, natural snack options? To wash or not to wash, that is the question. The answer is, washing your produce should be an automatic step you take before enjoying the bounty of nature. Below, we’ll talk about why that’s the case.

Pathogens & You: A Global Produce Economy

First, let’s talk about what “pre-washed” can mean. While most fruits and vegetables are washed once they reach the holding station or factory, the quality of this water isn’t always sufficiently clean. It succeeds in dislodging insects, removing dirt pesticide residues in large part, and some microscopic pathogens. The latter can come in the form of microbes from the soil, e. coli in many varieties, pesticides that infiltrate beneath the outer layer of fruits and vegetables, and other contaminants that may not be completely removed by simple spraying of water.

Because we consume produce grown in a variety of climates, pathogens can sometimes be exotic. Why should this matter? A pathogen’s a pathogen, right? Well, not precisely. Your body becomes somewhat accustomed to fending off certain types of dangerous microbes, bacteria, and foreign substances. But when you introduce pathogens from another part of the world, your immune system may not be able to repel the threat to your health. As well, the laws regulating certain types of pesticides and herbicides vary from country to country. The fruits and vegetables you purchase may have been grown using substances that are disallowed in your country.

Transport of produce, even if it receives a thorough washing after it’s brought in from the fields, can often compromise the cleanliness of your fruits and vegetables. Air born bacteria, pathogens that the initial washing missed or failed to remove, or disease vectors can come into contact with the produce. Never mind how frequently people touch fruit and decide not to buy it or drop it on the floor—washing is the best defense against what you don’t see.

Does Washing Work?

Given the prevalence of E. coli bacteria, Campylobacter, Salmonella, and Listeria among unprocessed produce, it’s a valid question. The important thing to remember is that the world of bacteria is immense. They exist in numbers that make the global human population look small town. Eradicating them completely isn’t practical, possible, or even necessary. That’s because your immune system can handle, under healthy conditions, a small amount of these pathogens. That’s what it’s built to do.

What washing produce will do is reduce the amount of bacteria, pesticides, and other vectors present to a manageable level. Don’t be alarmed. That bacteria has always been there. Now, you’re simply aware of it. Thorough washing under clean, running water will often render produce absolutely safe. There are some exceptions, of which you should be aware, however.

Many bacteria produce byproducts, which can be heat tolerant, and will not be eradicated during cooking. This can cause difficulty for those who are sensitive. However, by being aware of any announcements or recalls made for dangerously contaminated foods, you can largely avoid dangerous illness. Couple this awareness with thorough washing—even of prewashed foods—especially of sprouts, rock melons, broccoli, and greens. These vegetables and fruits provide many places where bacteria, microbes, dirt, or pesticide can remain and proliferate.

Be Aware

Know not only what your food is, but where it’s grown. What pesticides are used, what methods for cleaning and preparing the produce are used, and what sorts of issues has the food or company had in the past? Coupling an understanding of this magnitude with careful cleaning methods will save you endless trouble. Avoid produce that has been exposed to systemic pesticides. These chemicals permeate past the outer skin of the fruit or vegetable, and cannot be removed by washing. As well, examine your produce. Learn what signs betoken spoilage, and avoid any food that bears them. Fresh fruits and vegetables are wonderful things to include in your diet. By being aware and diligent in your preparation methods, you need not be ruled by fear of what you eat.

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