The Million Dollar Question: Can Washing Conventional Produce Make It As Pure As Organic?
It’s the question everyone wants an answer to: Does washing conventional produce really remove its pesticide residues?
Organic is said to be the healthiest choice for diners young and old, but it’s not always an option. When it’s too expensive or hard to find, conventional fruits and vegetables inevitably take its place. So it would be great news if diligently washing them meant detoxifying dinner.
The short answer is no, not entirely. According to the National Pesticide Information Center, washing produce reduces pesticide levels but doesn’t completely remove them. Some fruits and vegetables, for example, may have their residues sealed under a coating of shelf-life-extending wax. Others have soft or waxy skins that help chemicals stick to their surfaces.
A study done at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station confirms that washing is only partially effective. Researchers looked at the residues of 12 different pesticides on foods and discovered that three types were unaffected by washing.
There’s also the issue of systemic pesticides; these are chemicals designed to be absorbed by plants to kill any bugs that eat them. These poisons are inside the produce itself and won’t be affected by washing. Tests conducted by the Pesticide Action Network found the problem to be common—74% of tested conventional lettuce and 70% of broccoli, for example, had internal residues. Systemics were also found inside treated potatoes, strawberries, sweet peppers, and collard greens.
Now you’re probably wondering if those products sold specifically for washing produce can help. The answer is, only sometimes. A 2003 study examining the use of various non-toxic washing treatments on nectarines and found that three ingredients—ethanol, glycerol, and sodium lauryl sulfate—removed about half of the total residues. But other ingredients were no more effective than water. And you might not want SLS residue on your stone fruit. A similar study on strawberries found that acetic acid, the active component of vinegar, was also helpful. If you’re interested in using something other than water to clean your fruits and veggies, vinegar seems preferable to a produce washing product; you’re likely already eating vinegar and won’t have to question or research its ingredients.
Peeling produce would appear to be an excellent idea. It can help, but it’s no replacement for buying organic—it won’t affect those pesticides that have been absorbed into the fruit or vegetable. And some peels are nutrient dense.
Here are some best practices when it comes to cleaning produce, as we head out of summer fruit season and into apple and pear season.
- Discard the outer layers of leafy vegetables.
- Wash any produce you serve in running water, not a bath—especially if it is conventionally grown.
- Rub soft-skin produce as you go.
- Scrub and/or peel produce that can take it.
- Dry produce with a clean cloth if possible.
- Never use dish soap or other products not intended for food.
- If you want to use a produce wash, look for one made with non-toxic ingredients that have been found to be effective. Otherwise you’re wasting money and may be adding unwanted residue to your produce.
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