Why bother to wash fruits and vegetables?

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2011

When your grandparents were kids they probably never washed an apple before eating it, so why should you?

It's a good bet that the apple came from Gramp's yard or that of a neighbor and they picked it themselves. Any bacteria on the surface were likely to be the beneficial kind, not a disease-causing E. coli. If they did use a pesticide it was probably rotenone, which degrades within a matter of days of application and that isn't harmful to humans anyway. There might have been a worm inside but it was easy to eat carefully around the hole. And eating half a worm never hurt anyone.

Those days are long gone. Pesticides and fungicides keep fruits and vegetables unblemished. Much of it comes from other countries whose pesticide controls are not always enforced. Mass-production can lead to mass-contamination, as we have seen in everything from sprouts to spinach.

The health benefits of fruits and vegetables are overwhelmingly greater than the hazards but it makes sense to take some simple steps to avoid illness. Some people worry about the waxy coating but that is a non-problem. Those waxes are edible and non-toxic. The main hazards are germs and pesticides.

Modern produce goes through several washes so that dirt disappears and most of the chemicals get washed away, too. Although pesticides can be dangerous to farm workers, the amount that might remain on fruits and vegetables is far below harmful levels. The protective effects of fruits and vegetables are immeasurably greater than the likelihood of developing cancer from residual chemicals.

That said, always wash fresh produce, even that which will be peeled, such as citrus. Fingers that pick up germs from the peel can easily transfer them to the inside. A knife can also push harmful bacteria into the edible portion. Be especially careful to wash peaches, strawberries, and other berries; they are the most likely to harbor bacteria as well as pesticides.

Testing shows that plain water is about as effective as detergents that are formulated for use on food. Food experts discourage the use of ordinary soaps, citing the risk of possibly harmful chemicals. Thorough rinsing, helped along by rubbing with your hands where practical, minimizes that risk.

Organically-grown fruits and vegetables are not risk-free from germs and pesticides. Don't skip the washing process no matter what the source of your produce.

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.