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How to Get Those Icky Germs Off Your Fruit and Veggies

Sometimes it’s apparent that you need to wash your produce. Those potatoes or carrots you grew yourself or bought at the farmers market probably have a layer of dirt you don’t want to eat. But what about that banana you’re going to peel and eat, the avocado you’re going to slice or the perfect-looking bell pepper that’s headed into your stir-fry? Is washing really necessary?

We connected with Elise Heeney, RD, a clinical dietitian with Banner Boswell Medical Center in Sun City, AZ. She said that you need to wash all of your fruits and veggies - with one exception (more on that later).

Why is it important to wash your fruits and veggies?

Fruits and vegetables can harbor germs that can cause foodborne illnesses, such as salmonella, norovirus, listeria, Cyclospora and E. coli. These germs can cause symptoms including diarrhea, stomach pain or cramps, nausea, vomiting, fever, headache and muscle pains. “Severe illness can lead to hospitalization or death,” Heeney said. These symptoms could strike from a few hours to a few days after eating contaminated food.

Some people are at higher risk for foodborne illness, including people over age 65, children under age 5, people with weakened immune systems and pregnant women.

How should you wash fruit and veggies?

These tips can help ensure you get as much of the dirt, germs and bugs off your produce as possible:

  • Wash your produce under running tap water immediately before you eat it or prepare it.
  • Even produce that you peel needs to be washed since when you peel or cut produce, you could transfer dirt or bacteria from the skin onto the parts you will eat.
  • For firm-skinned fruits and vegetables such as cucumbers, melons and oranges, scrub them with a clean produce brush while you are rinsing them.
  • For leafy vegetables, remove and discard the outer leaves, then rinse the leaves one at a time.
  • Raw sprouts grow in warm, humid conditions where bacteria can thrive. So even when you thoroughly wash sprouts, you should still cook them thoroughly to kill germs. And people at high risk for foodborne illnesses shouldn’t eat sprouts.
  • Don’t use soaps, detergents or diluted bleach solutions to wash your fruit or veggies. They aren’t intended for consumption and may leave residue on your produce.
  • Don’t soak fruits or veggies—soaking can leach out nutrients. And if you soak fruits and veggies in the sink, germs from the sink can spread to the produce. If you soak produce like berries in a bowl, germs from one berry can spread to others.
  • After washing your produce, dry it with a clean towel or paper towel.
  • If you have to cut your produce ahead of time, refrigerate it within two hours of cutting.

Here’s the exception: You don’t need to wash produce labeled “triple washed” or “washed and ready to eat.”

The bottom line

Fruits and veggies are some of the healthiest things you can eat, but you need to make sure they are clean before you dive into that salad or cook up that stir fry. Otherwise, you risk contracting food poisoning. To learn more about safe and healthy eating, connect with a Banner Health dietitian or health care provider.

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