Lettuce Learn How to Wash Produce
My grandfather showed me the secret to picking a perfect cantaloupe the summer I turned 7.
"First you feel the bottom, to see if it gives," he said, riding his fingers along the grooves. "And then you smell it. You can always tell a cantaloupe's going to be good by the way it smells."
My grandfather –- who worked in a supermarket his entire life -- never mentioned scrubbing the cantaloupe with a brush to destroy pathogens. He also never said anything about a cantaloupe being anti-acidic –- which makes the fleshy interior especially susceptible to bacterial growth. Who knew?
But cantaloupes, I now know, are not the only fruit that requires special attention in your kitchen sink. A nationwide E. coli outbreak linked to spinach has forced salad lovers to examine their produce more carefully. Food-safety experts say that, depending on which fruits and vegetables you eat, there are specific ways to avoid contaminated produce and food-borne illnesses.
In fact, the FDA says that all fruits and vegetables, including those that are organically grown, could benefit from a thorough washing to remove soil, surface microbes, and some pesticides. Food safety experts admit that the chance of getting really sick from a salad or fruit cup is extremely tiny. However, they recommend that individuals with compromised immune systems and those taking care of small children, whose immune systems aren't fully developed, should thoroughly scrub all produce.
Here's a rundown on various produce items you may have in your fridge, and how the experts think you should wash them. For a reality check, we also got one Real Mom's opinion. (Full disclosure: the "Real Mom" is my mother, Robyn Kramer, who says, "I've never given you guys [me, my brothers, my dad] fruit that isn't clean.")
We'll see about that, Mom.
All Fruit and Veggies
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Rinse all produce under running tap water, suggests Shelley Feist, executive director of the Partnership for Food Safety Education, a nonprofit group that educates the public about safe food-handling.
"Don't fill your sink with water and let produce sit in there," she says. That won't remove dirt effectively. To remove exterior bacteria, all you need to do is rub your produce under running water with your hands. Fruit and vegetable washes sold in supermarkets don't do the job any better, says Feist. Nor does soap, detergent, or bleach.
REAL MOM: She scoffs at detergents for fruits and vegetables. "I don't know why people buy that stuff at the supermarket," she says. "It's a scam. You've never gotten sick from me just rinsing it with water, have you?"
Produce with Rinds, Grooves or Waxy Skin
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: This category includes melons, cucumbers, winter squash, citrus, and potatoes, and all of them should be scrubbed with a brush, says Luke LaBorde, associate professor in Penn State University's Department of Food Science. Potatos and melon grooves mean your hands can't rub off all the dirt. Waxy-skinned citrus fruit and cucumbers may have pathogens sticking to the exterior.
All visible dirt and debris should be removed, and the produce should be scrubbed to make sure pathogens aren't sticking to the sticky wax.
Laborde notes, "There have been several microbial outbreaks involving cantaloupes because they're grown near the ground and can pick up dirt." The dirt may contain microorganisms spread through poor irrigation techniques in the field. These pathogens tend to thrive on the grooved surface of a cantaloupe.
LaBorde recommends rinsing all visible dirt off a melon before eating it. "When you cut open the cantaloupe," he says, "you can transfer bacteria to the fleshy part inside." And because a cantaloupe is not an acidic fruit -- unlike, say, a tart apple -- bacteria can grow more easily on the fleshy part.
REAL MOM: Sounds sensible to her. "I don't normally wash cantaloupes," she says. "But I would think that if you're cutting it and the knife is going through it, then the outside of the cantaloupe hits one part of the knife and you don't know if the dirty part's going to hit the inside."
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Believe it or not, you might want to rinse off your banana, says Feist. There's never been a specific outbreak linked to the fruit, but imagine how many hands touch the fruit before it gets to your mouth. Your hands might pick up the bacteria on the unwashed peel.
REAL MOM: "I don't think that's crazy to wash bananas," she says. "If the outside of the peel touches the fruit, I can see why people would do that."
Leafy Bunched Vegetables (Lettuce, Cabbage)
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Leafy vegetables can be tricky, because like cantaloupes, they grow close to the ground, where bacteria from irrigation systems thrive.
LaBorde recommends plucking the outer layer of lettuce leaves off the head before thoroughly rinsing the leaves in water. "Rinse a few times until you can't see any visible dirt," he says "Then spin them in one of those vegetable dryers."
If your lettuce is bagged and marked "ready-to-eat," the FDA says it's safe to eat without rewashing it. But other experts disagree and advise washing everything that comes out of ready-to-eat bags.
If you're saving your lettuce or cabbage for later, he recommends drying off the leaves before placing them in the refrigerator. Removing the moisture will prevent the growth of bacteria.
REAL MOM: "I have water running into a bowl," she says, " and then I put the lettuce leaves in the bowl and I swish it around with my hands and then I keep draining it -- I do that about 6 times." (LaBorde says her technique is satisfactory, though "that may be a bit overkill. Just make sure you can't see any visible dirt on the leaves.")
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella can get into the seeds through cracks in the shell before the sprouts are grown, according to the FDA. These bacteria are impossible to rinse out, and the FDA issued a warning in 1998 recommending that high-risk groups (children, elderly, those with compromised immune systems) avoid sprouts. LaBorde points out that most sprout seeds come from the same sources, so it wouldn't make a difference if you tried growing spouts at home. "If they're contaminated, they're contaminated in the field," he says. "Before the seeds even get to the consumer."
REAL MOM: "No one would eat sprouts in this house, so I don't have to worry."
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Rinse under running water in a colander (so you don't drop any blueberries or grapes in the sink). A spray nozzle might give a more thorough cleaning. Feist says you may want to also blot your bunches dry with a paper towel to make sure each grape or strawberry is clean and to wipe off any residual dirt.
REAL MOM: "I take the sprayer from the sink and keep spraying water on the grapes and I swish them around. I do that every day because Michael [her son and my brother] eats them for lunch."
"I don't get those people who pluck grapes off in the supermarket and eat them," adds my mom. "They'd have to be crazy."
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