Prepping Your Produce

Splashing vegetables

How is your garden going this year? This is the time of year when lovely fresh produce is in abundance. But be sure to take precautions before you dig into that delicious salad or slice of cantaloupe!

When we think of foodborne illness, we usually think of meat or dairy products as being the culprit. But fruits and vegetables can also present a risk, especially for seniors, who are more vulnerable to E. coli and other harmful microorganisms. The American Institute for Cancer Research offers tips for preparing all those wonderful summer vegetables we find in abundance this time of year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) nutrition experts, advises rinsing all fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them. This recommendation also applies to produce with rinds or skins that are not eaten.

What about packaged produce labeled "ready to eat," "pre-washed" or "triple washed"? You don't have to wash these varieties again at home, because bagged precut vegetables are washed multiple times in chlorinated water to kill pathogens. Just make sure they are refrigerated until ready to eat and aren't consumed after the "use-by" date. Any bacteria they may pick up would probably come from handling in your kitchen.

That's why it's important to clean all surfaces and utensils with soap and hot water, including cutting boards, peelers, counter tops, knives and dishes that will touch fresh produce. Keep cutting boards for vegetables and fruits separate from those you use for meat. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before and after handling fresh fruits and vegetables.

Rubbing fruits and vegetables by hand under running water usually does the trick. Or you can use a scrub brush for produce that has rough or grooved skins. Soaking is not advised, because the water is stagnant; make sure you rinse under running water. Pay attention to crevices that grit can hide in, such as between the florets of broccoli and cauliflower, or the grit hidden in the wrinkles of mature spinach leaves. Remove the outer leaves of lettuce and cabbage. (The AICR advises that it is not a good idea to use antibacterial soap or detergent to wash your produce, because it isn't known how safe any residue might be that is left on it.)

Leafy greens need a little extra attention because they grow close to the ground. Separate the leaves, then rinse and rub each leaf until no visible dirt is left. Dry with paper towels or place them in an inexpensive plastic spinner, which works much faster.

Produce that has rough or indented skins, like cantaloupes, needs to be scrubbed with a small brush to effectively remove all the dirt and bacteria. This prevents bacteria on the surface of the fruit from being transferred to the inside of the fruit by your knife.

Scrubbing is best for wax-coated items, too, such as cucumbers, apples, peppers and tomatoes. Wax is only applied to some kinds of produce that is supplied by large companies. It is a plant-based substance that seals in moisture and protects the produce from contamination. Although the wax itself is not hazardous to your health, it does allow dirt to stick to the produce, so washing waxed items is still advisable.

Do you need to buy a cleaning spray? Many grocery stores now sell bottled washes that are touted to be environmentally safe, able to impede the growth of bacteria and wash away chemicals, soil and wax. Studies have not shown that using these products makes food any safer. If it makes you feel better, there is likely nothing wrong with using such a product, but be sure to follow the directions on the product's label.

It only takes a couple of minutes to wash your produce and safeguard your loved ones from foodborne illnesses. Try to buy your produce locally and eat plenty of vegetables and fruits every day for good health and lower cancer risk.

Source: The American Institute for Cancer Research. The AICR focuses on the link between diet and cancer. Visit their website (www.aicr.org) for a wealth of information and recipes for healthy eating.

Learn More

The CDC, Food and Drug Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and several other U.S. government agencies sponsor FoodSafety.gov, the clearinghouse for consumer food safety information.