How to Wash Fruits and Vegetables, According to a Nutritionist

There's a right way and a wrong way.

You know that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. But you may be wondering if you really need to wash them and if so, how? Here's the lowdown on the best ways to wash fresh produce from your local farmer's market and grocery store—or even your own backyard.

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Why Should You Wash Your Produce?

The reason to wash fresh fruits and veggies is to rinse away soil, microbes, and pesticides. Sometimes you'll see visible soil on leafy greens and other veggies, which can be unappetizing and add a gritty texture to your meal. But microbial pathogens, including E.Coli, salmonella, and the microbes that cause norovirus, can't be seen on produce but can cause foodborne illness.

Research tiespesticide residueto negative health effects, too. For example, dietary pesticides may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences for women, specifically a lower probability of pregnancy and live birth following infertility treatment, as Health previously reported. Male fertility may also be negatively impacted by eating produce with high levels of pesticide residue, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Human Reproduction.

How to Wash Your Fruits and Vegetables

There are solid, science-based ways to wash your fruits and veggies at home. But let's start with a few methods that aren't recommended. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not advise washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or a commercial produce wash. The FDA Food Facts publication stated, "Produce is porous, so soap and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and can make you sick." The FDA also stated that the safety of the residues of commercial produce washes is not known.

Instead, here's what the FDA does recommend: Before you prepare and/or eat produce, wash it thoroughly under cold, running water. And for firm produce, like cucumbers, scrub it with a clean produce brush, like this ring-shaped cleaning brush from Full Circle ($5; amazon.com). "After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface," the FDA added.

For items like bagged greens or baby carrots that are "pre-washed, ready-to-eat," the FDA said you can eat the produce without further washing if that's clearly stated on the packaging.

Will Washing Fruits and Vegetables With Water Remove Pesticides?

In most cases, washing and soaking reduces (but doesn't eliminate) pesticide residue levels, according to a 2017 review published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. When appropriate, peeling your produce can reduce pesticide residues more effectively. But it's important to note that the benefits of eating five to seven servings of produce daily far outweigh the risks of pesticides. In other words, even if washing doesn't completely remove residues, you will better protect your health by consuming fruits and veggies as compared to avoiding them because of a small amount of pesticide residue.

According to a 2014 review published in the British Journal of Nutrition, organically grown produce was shown to contain lower detectable levels of pesticide residue compared with conventionally grown veggies and fruits, but there isn't much research about whether there are measurable health benefits to choosing organic over conventional produce. Both organic and conventional fresh produce must be washed before eating it and both provide important nutrition for health.

Can You Use Vinegar to Wash Fruits and Vegetables?

You might have heard that vinegar is a natural way to clean your produce. But studies going back more than 15 years have concluded that washing with water was more effective than a vinegar solution in reducing bacterial contamination on fresh produce. The best approach is to wash produce under cold, running tap water, and rub or brush where applicable to remove dirt and microbes.

Produce Safety Doesn't Stop at Washing

Apart from washing your produce, there are other important tips for keeping your fruits and veggies safe to eat.

  • Choose produce that isn't bruised or damaged
  • Keep fruits and vegetables away from raw meat, poultry, and seafood in your grocery cart and refrigerator.
  • When preparing food, use separate knives and cutting boards for raw produce and raw meat.
  • Never place salad or fresh produce on a plate or surface that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs.
  • Store pre-cut and highly perishable fresh fruits and veggies (such as berries, melon, and lettuce) in the fridge, set at a temperature of 40° F or below.

If you're not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to keep its quality, ask your grocer or grower.

It's Time To Reap the Rewards

A diet rich in produce seriously ups your intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), eating more veggies and fruit by following the DASH diet can help lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, help with weight management and reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Eating fresh produce has also been shown to support mental health. According to a 2020 review published in Nutrients, eating fruits and vegetables has improved many aspects of mental health, ranging from improved general well-being and self-esteem to reduced anxiety and depression.

To get the most benefit from including more produce in your daily routine, use the tips in this article to keep it safe to eat. Also, aim for a variety of types and colors to expose your body to a broad spectrum of the health-protective compounds found in veggies and fruit.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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