Is It Really Necessary To Wash Your Fruit and Vegetables Before Consuming?

Adequately washing fresh fruit and vegetables is Cooking 101, but does soaking produce really make it safer to eat?

A video of aphids crawling over a bowl of broccoli has gone viral on TikTok, encouraging users to thoroughly wash their fruit and vegetables before eating them.

Captioned “ignorance is bliss,” the 12-second clip shows aphids hiding in the vegetable’s nooks and crannies, as well as floating in the water surrounding it.

Posted to TikTok by user ansley_h1 on 24 August, the footage has received almost 70,000 likes and more than 2,800 shares from disgusted users.

Although washing produce may get rid of aphids and other creepy crawlies, can it stop you from getting sick? We asked a food safety expert for their thoughts.

‘People don’t want to eat bugs’

We all know the importance of getting your five a day, but humans aren’t the only ones interested in fresh food. Although they may not be appetizing, aphids aren’t harmful to humans and are commonly found on fruit and vegetables.

As Ansley’s video demonstrates, washing or soaking your fruit and vegetables will help to kill any insects, as well as get rid of dirt and pesticides. Traveling, rinsing produce only goes so far.

According to Keith Schneider, Professor of Food Safety at the University of Florida, it’s the bugs you can’t see that make you ill.

“It’s the microbes,” he told Newsweek. “Pathogenic microorganisms, salmonella, listeria and e.coli.”

Still, Schneider believes that washing your food does have its merits.

“A lot of people don’t want to eat [insects],” he said. “Washing also removes sand, grit, fertilizers, etc. which make it more palatable.”

How do I get rid of microbes on my food?

Unfortunately, if a bacteria or a virus has infected your food, there isn’t much you can do about it.

“Food-borne illnesses are difficult to remove,” said Schneider. “That’s why we focus on preventive measures here in the US.”

Many people are concerned about pesticides, but they can kill these microorganisms without harming humans.

“A pesticide has to be approved for use, at least here in the US,” he said. “They can reduce the level of microbes on the surface of the fruit or vegetable.”

Washing produce at home does help to remove pesticides, but Schneider said you’re washing off something that “is not known to have any significant health effects.”

A stock photo of a woman’s hands washing blueberries in a sink surrounded by other produce. Food safety expert Keith Schneider said there are some benefits to washing produce before eating it.
lucigerma/iStock/Getty Images Plus

What are common food-borne illnesses to watch out for?

Schneider estimates that 50 percent of food-borne illnesses in the US are caused by norovirus. Highly contagious, norovirus causes vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain. You can catch the norovirus by consuming contaminated food, touching contaminated surfaces, or from infected people. As it’s not deadly, norovirus rarely gets much news coverage, unlike scarier but rarer outbreaks of e.coli or salmonella.

“About 300 to 500 people die a year from salmonella,” said Schneider. “Out of a million cases.”

Which is safer, produce or meat?

When it comes to food-borne illnesses, you’re far more likely to find a virus or bacteria on raw meat than on fruit or vegetables.

“The chances of finding salmonella on a raw burger you bring home is roughly 15 to 20 percent,” said Schneider. “Finding salmonella on a leafy green or tomato is maybe one in 1,000.”

However, the cooking process destroys many food-borne illnesses, whereas fruit and vegetables are often eaten raw.

“So there has to be more care in the field to prevent it from getting on there in the first place,” said Schneider.

Does where I buy produce from matter?

Whether you’re a fan of farmer’s markets or buy food from your local 7/11, the odds of getting sick from infected fruit and vegetables are negligible. The Produce Safety Rule, part of the 2011 Food Safety Modernization Act, is where “good agricultural practices” are codified.

“It lays out a set of principles that farmers should follow in order to farm produce more safely, some of [which] are fairly easy,” said Schneider.

“Making sure that the water that you’re using meets certain standards, making sure your workers are not ill while they’re handling or harvesting the crops, there are rules in place.”

“I don’t think salmonella or E. coli cares whether you’re growing organically or conventionally,” said Schneider. “It doesn’t really care what your politics are.”

Should I avoid fresh fruit and vegetables?

Although food-borne illnesses are not fun, Schneider advises against cutting raw fruit and vegetables out of your diet.

“The benefits outweigh the potential for the chance of getting sick,” he said.

“In the US, the chances of you dying from eating a meal are probably as likely as you winning the lottery.”

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