Have you been washing your fruits, vegetables wrong?

(NEXSTAR) – How you treat your produce after you get home from the store could be exposing you to bacteria that cause foodborne illness, experts say.

In some cases it’s not how, but what gets washed. Do you wash your oranges? How about your avocados? If you’re thinking about that rind or peel as nature’s shrink wrap, you may want to reconsider.

“It’s really important that you wash them ahead of time because, for example, if you are cutting up a melon, it’s got a hard rind and you’re not necessarily going to eat that, but if there is bacteria or pesticides on the outside of that rind, it’s going to get transferred into the flesh of that fruit through that knife,” said Beth Czerwony, RD, registered dietitian for Cleveland Clinic.

Unwashed fruits and vegetables can carry salmonella, E. coli and listeria bacteria, all of which can make you very sick, Czerwony said.

The common symptoms include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, but an infection can be especially dangerous for older people or those with weakened immune systems, leading to hospitalization in some cases.

When to wash your produce

When you get home after going to the supermarket, do you wash all of your fruits and veggies immediately? Instead, experts recommend waiting until just before using them to preserve the texture and flavor.

Until it’s time to eat or cook them, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends refrigerating fresh fruits and vegetables at a temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.

While it’s important to wash produce, experts say dodging bacteria actually starts at the grocery store. Avoid any produce that is bruised or damaged and don’t buy pre-cut, bagged or packaged fruits or vegetables that aren’t refrigerated or surrounded by ice.

Instead of washing the outermost layer of lettuce or cabbage leaves, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends removing them entirely, as they may contain more germs or dirt.

Even if the produce looks good on the outside, if it has a brown, mottled appearance on the inside it could be a sign that invasive fruit flies – which feed on over 400 crops – may have laid their eggs under the skin of the fruit or vegetable.

The FDA also warns that lightly-cooked or raw sprouts (such as alfalfa or mung bean) can contain bacteria that could cause illness.

“Unlike other fresh produce, sprouts are grown from seeds and beans under warm and humid conditions,” according to the FDA website. “These conditions are also ideal for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli. If just a few harmful bacteria are present in or on the seed, the bacteria can grow to high levels during sprouting, even if you are growing your own sprouts under sanitary conditions at home.”

How to properly wash fruits and veggies

This step may be less complicated than you thought – in most cases running water should be all you need.

“There’s necessarily no need to soak it in vinegar. I’ve seen some recommendations for baking soda,” said Czerwony. “Of course, there’s some commercial products that some people like to use to kind of get the wax or potential pesticides off the fruits and vegetables, and that’s certainly your own personal preference.”

If there’s some dirt visible, you can always use a brush to take it off.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns against washing produce with detergent, soap or commercial wash as produce is porous and the cleanser may not rinse off fully.

“These products are not approved or labeled by the Food and Drug Administration for use on foods,” according to the USDA. “You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce.” 

Along with a bath under running water, patting your fruits and vegetables dry with a paper towel is the last step, according to guidance from the Colorado State University Extension, which has safe handling tips for different types of produce.

If there’s one produce-washing tip to keep in mind, however, it’s that “usually just running water is going to be the best way,” Czerwony said.

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