What's a little dirt, anyway?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

March 2007

Animals in the wild never wash plant foods so why should we? If that question makes you a little queasy, be assured that I don't advise eliminating kitchen hygiene. On the contrary, we need to be very aware of the kinds of contamination that Stone Age homemakers never had to worry about.

First, a little reassurance about ordinary dirt: a little bit won't make you sick. We've all watched our diaper-draggers explore the outdoors on all fours and regularly put their fingers as well as foreign objects into their mouths with little apparent harm. Some adults regularly eat dirt in what seems to be a craving for certain minerals but it rarely makes them ill.

A few thousand years ago our ancestors were unconcerned about a little dirt on the edible roots that they pulled out of the ground. The soil, after all, is where plants get iron, magnesium, selenium and a host of other valuable minerals.

Do you wash the fruits and vegetables that you buy at the supermarket? It's hard to maintain good sanitation conditions in the field for the farm workers who are harvesting fruits and vegetables. That's true in the United States as well as the countries from which much of our produce comes. It wasn't much of a problem for the very small population of our nomadic ancestors of hundreds of thousands of years ago. These days contamination with bacteria, viruses or parasites is not common but all fruits and vegetables deserve at least a rinse with clean water. Ordinary soap is not a good choice because it may contain chemicals that can remain on the food item or even penetrate the outer layers. Veggie washes have had mixed reviews but they do no harm.

Some fruits are harder to clean with an ordinary rinse. There have been outbreaks of virus and parasite diseases transmitted via strawberries and raspberries. If you're worried about these harmful germs, soak the suspect fruit for 15-20 minutes in a weak solution of household bleach. Nutritionists at Ohio State recommend 2 teaspoons of Clorox (6 percent chlorine) in a gallon of water followed by a thorough tap water rinse.

Do you need to worry about the wax coating on today's fruits? Many fruits and vegetables have a natural film of wax on their surface. Repeated washings between the field and the packing shed remove these natural coatings so producers apply their own. These are edible and safe. They usually come from natural vegetable products and help to maintain freshness, retain moisture and limit spoilage.

The issue of pesticide residues is not one that should be of concern in this country even though we import many of our fruits and vegetables from places whose controls are not as rigorous as ours. Most fruits and vegetables contain traces of pesticides but the levels are far below those considered to be unsafe, with very rare exceptions. Even certified organic produce has traces of pesticide but in amounts considerably less than that which is grown by standard methods.

Don't let the fear of disease or chemical poisoning prevent you from eating fruits and vegetables. The health benefits of these plant foods are overwhelming compared with the very small possibility that eating them will make you ill.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.