We all know that vegetables grow in dirt (well at least most of us know that). Some grow under the ground, such as carrots, parsnips, onions, potatoes, turnips, celeriac or beets among others. These are known as root vegetables because they are…the root of the plant that is growing above the ground.
There are also the leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, cabbage and lettuce which grow above ground and then there are all the other veggies that grow on the plant itself such as eggplant/aubergine, tomatoes, corn, peppers, and zucchini/courgette.
Regardless of where they grow, during the process of growing, there will be physical contaminants that come into contact with the plant that we really don’t want to eat: dirt, bugs and pesticides being the big three.
Once your fruits and vegetables were ready for harvest, they were handled by several different pairs of hands in the fields and orchards, then in the warehouses, and finally again in your grocery store. Bacteria such as Listeria, Salmonella and E. Coli may all be lurking on your fruits and vegetables, whether they are organically grown or conventionally grown. These bacteria all cause food-borne illness and need to be washed away from your produce.
Many vegetables are somewhat pre-washed before they get packed up and shipped to the grocery store, but if you’re buying from a farmer’s market, the veggies most likely will not have gone through the process of pre-washing.
- Start by keeping your kitchen countertops, refrigerator, cookware and cutlery clean.
- Always wash your hands before preparing meals and handling fruits and vegetables.
- Keep fresh greens, fruits and vegetables away from uncooked meats to avoid cross-contamination.
- Choose healthy looking, ripe fruits and vegetables when you shop. Avoid bruised, moldy and mushy produce.
- Wait until just before you eat or prepare your fruits and vegetables to wash them. Fruits and vegetables have natural coatings that keep moisture inside, and washing them will make them spoil sooner.
- Wash all pre-packaged fruits and vegetables, even if the label claims they are pre-washed.
- Wash all parts of your fruits and vegetables, even if you don’t plan on eating them. Bacteria can live on the rind of an orange or the skin of a cucumber, for example. Though you may peel them away and toss them in the trash, the bacteria can be transferred from the outside of the fruit or vegetable to the knife you use to cut them, and then onto the parts you will be eating.
- Gently rub fruits and vegetables under running water. Don’t use any soaps, detergents, bleaches or other toxic cleaning chemicals. These chemicals will leave a residue of their own on your produce.
- Commercial sprays and washes sold for cleaning vegetables really aren’t any better than cleaning thoroughly with plain water, so don’t waste your money on them.
- Firmer fruits and vegetables, such as apples and potatoes, can be scrubbed with a vegetable brush while rinsing with clean water to remove dirt and residues.
- Remove and discard the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage heads, and thoroughly rinse the rest of the leaves.
- Rinse berries and other small fruits thoroughly and allow them to drain in a colander.
Many nutrients and minerals in root vegetables are close to the surface, and therefore can be lost through peeling the skin. However, the skin of root vegetables can also act as a sponge, absorbing pesticides and chemicals used in the growing process. If your veggies are grown organically, simply wash with warm water, scrubbing with a brush if necessary, and refrain from peeling. If you’re not sure you’ll like the taste or texture, experiment with leaving the peels on, or try peeling only half of the vegetable. Exceptions include celeriac, whose knobby, thick and dirty skin will need to be peeled. If your veggies are conventionally grown and/or have been given a waxy coating by the produce company (usually turnips and rutabagas), then remove peels.
Remember that the fruits and vegetables you buy may look clean when you pick them out at the grocery store, but you can’t see bacteria or chemicals. They still need to be washed before you eat them or serve them to guests or family members. This is especially important for produce and greens that are eaten raw.