Do You Really Have to Wash Your Fruits and Veggies?

Linda Sharps admits she doesn't always rinse her produce. But does it matter?

(Photo: Joern Pollex/Getty Images)

Living in Eugene, Ore., with her family, Linda wrangles two rambunctious boys while ignoring the laundry.

Every morning I eat the same breakfast: two hard-boiled eggs followed by a Honeycrisp apple. Day in, day out. Do you get in this sort of food rut too? Before the eggs-apples thing it was veggie sausage patties. Before that it was oatmeal. I went through a dalliance with a high-fiber cereal, but I got sort of, ah, winded by the side effects.

Anyway. Point is, an apple a day. I'm keeping the doctor away, right? Except maybe not so much, because I never bother washing my apple before consuming it.

I know, I know. I can picture your expression as you absorb this little confession. It's like the time I asked my husband what he washed his hair with, and he answered, "That dandruff stuff. Pert." Then I asked him what he washed his face with, and he was like, "Um, Pert." There was a brief horrified pause, and we just stared at each other with equal measures of confusion and disapproval, which is exactly how I imagine you're looking at me now.

Which is to say, I'm sure you don't understand how a person could deliberately—and repeatedly—choose to not wash one's fruit. Well, for one thing, I can't lie: There's a laziness factor. But there's also a part of me that looks at what appears to be a perfectly clean, shiny apple and figures whatever microscopic thing that's clinging to its surface can't really be that hazardous.

This point of view, obviously, is wrong. The FDA makes it perfectly clear that all produce should be washed and goes so far as to reinforce its message with a stern poster that's apparently supposed to be printed and hung in the kitchen for idiots like myself. It reads, simply, WASH FRUITS AND VEGETABLES BEFORE EATING.

That doesn't really leave much room for misinterpretation, does it? ("Wait a second, I don't get whether the washing should happen before or after I put it in my—is there some sort of government-created material that explains this?") Still, is it really so bad to skip the apple scrubbing?

According to those much-quoted experts, the answer is yes. Yes it's bad, because (1) hello, food-borne illnesses, and (2) according to some research, more than 80 percent of all produce has surface pesticide residue. A 2012 study found that pesticides and other chemicals used in growing fruit and vegetables could be putting kids at risk of developing cancer:

The results of this study demonstrate a need to prevent exposure to multiple toxins in young children to lower their cancer risk.

Of course, a dissenting scientist points out,

It’s really important to remember that the levels of pesticides found in fruit and vegetables are usually very low, and there is no evidence that eating these small amounts of pesticides increases the risk of cancer.

It's hard to find objective information on how dangerous pesticide residue on foods may be, but it stands to reason that prolonged pesticide exposure isn't a good thing. Children are especially susceptible, given their developing bodies and tendency to a less varied diet. Also, according to the Environmental Working Group, that kids drink far more fruit juice—particularly apple and grape—is worrying: Apples and grapes often contain stronger and larger trace amounts of pesticides.

My kids always ask me to peel their apples, and bananas pretty much have a built-in cleansing method, but I admit I've given them berries on more than one occasion straight from the package. Grapes too (hands head in shame). 

Organic produce seems like the best solution, but even if you spring for the fruits and vegetables that were lovingly and sustainably carried from a bucolic non-synthetics-using farm by someone with freshly scrubbed petal-soft hands, there are still harmful bacteria that may have been in the soil or water where the produce was grown. Contamination can also happen after harvest, during preparation, storage, and shipping.

So, is it enough to rinse my produce in the kitchen sink? Not according to the manufacturers of those wash sprays you see in grocery produce sections. As Environné Fruit and Vegetable Wash puts it, "Water alone simply isn't enough when you want the true benefits of fresh produce." Apparently I should be spraying my produce down with a mix of purified water, natural cleansing agents derived from plant oils, polysorbate 20, grapefruit seed extract, and lemon and orange extract.

Honestly, I'm not sure if I'm ready to embrace the notion of using a special spray, but I'm officially convinced I need to do what the FDA's been telling me to do all along. I'll be the first to admit that I've been stupid to skip the washing, and if ever you've wondered who exactly could be so boneheaded they need a poster to remind them to do what should be a common-sense activity—now you know. 

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