You may be used to rinsing your fruit and vegetables in the sink before you eat them in order to remove the invisible grime of production. But if you are worried about imperceptible chemical pesticides, fungi and pathogens, a quick water wash might not be enough.
Pesticide residue coats much of the produce available at the grocery store. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), nearly 70 percent of the produce sold in the United States comes with pesticide residues, according to an analysis of test data from the Department of Agriculture. Every year, EWG names the “dirty dozen,” or the 12 fruits and vegetables that should not be purchased conventionally because of the prevalence of pesticides.
Produce sprays or soaks are great for cleaning the pesticide residue, along with other potentially harmful microbes, off of vegetables or fruits. Even for produce like mangoes where you do not consume the skin, washing the produce will keep any microbes on the exterior from being transferred to the flesh when the fruit or vegetable is cut.
There are commercial vegetable washes available, but some are made with synthetic chemicals and the ones that aren’t are hardly worth the cost given how easy it is to make your own with items you have around your kitchen. Besides, some research shows that certain commercial vegetable washes are no more effective than tap water.
There are several different recipes for vegetable washes depending on what you are washing and how thoroughly you want it cleaned. In general, though, you will want to use one of several natural cleaning agents: vinegar, lemon, salt or baking soda.
The most basic produce wash can be made from a one to three mixture of water and distilled white vinegar. You can also add a tablespoon of lemon for extra disinfecting power and a fresher taste. Put the mixture in a spray bottle, mist your produce and let sit for five minutes. Wash thoroughly before eating. The acidity of vinegar and lemon will also help remove wax or residue from produce stickers.
If you do not have a spray bottle or are looking to clean the surface area of your leafy greens more efficiently (spraying each individual spinach leaf would certainly be thorough but tedious), you can also soak your vegetables in the water, vinegar and lemon mixture. Let heartier vegetables sit for 20 to 30 minutes, wash thoroughly and eat. Leafy salad greens and tender berries will only need a few minutes to soak. Use a colander to drain the tender produce, spray gently but thoroughly with water and allow to dry before consuming. You can also use a salad spinner filled with the soaking solution for quick cleaning.
Salt is also effective and leaves behind less of an aftertaste than vinegar. A 2007 study conducted by Nanjing Agricultural University and the Institute of Food Safety Research and Inspection in China showed that both vinegar and salt solutions (about one parts salt to 10 parts water, ideally) were effective to remove pesticides like chlorpyrifos, DDT, cypermethrin and chlorothalonil. To use salt instead of vinegar for your soak, simply use one or two tablespoons of salt in your water instead of vinegar and lemon.
Baking soda, whose alkalinity helps to neutralize many common acidic pesticides, is generally thought to be the most effective produce wash. A 2017 study conducted by researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst showed that soaking apples in a mix of water and baking soda helps remove upwards of 80 percent of certain pesticides, which is far more than rinsing them with water and is even more than was removed after rinsing the fruits in bleach. Baking soda soaks, however, are generally not recommended for tender produce like berries and mushrooms.
If you want to use baking soda instead of lemon and vinegar, you will only need about one teaspoon for every two cups of water. Let your produce soak for 15 to 20 minutes before removing and rinsing thoroughly.
Studies show that the extra effort to make your own natural produce cleaner is not a wash. Even if you are shopping for produce in the supermarket aisles instead of the farmers market, you can take a few extra low-cost steps to make sure the food you consume is as clean as it possibly can be.
DIY Vegetable Wash
—3 cups water
—1 cup distilled white vinegar
—1 tablespoon lemon juice (optional)
1. Mix water, distilled white vinegar and lemon juice.
2. Put the mixture in a spray bottle.
3. Mist produce and let sit for 5 minutes. Heartier produce like broccoli, cauliflower and squash can be soaked in a bowl for 20 to 30 minutes before draining with a colander. Leafy greens and berries should be soaked for 2 to 3 minutes before draining.
4. Rinse thoroughly with water before eating.
Variation: Replace 1 cup of distilled white vinegar and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice with 1 ½ teaspoons of baking soda. Soak produce for 15 to 20 minutes before draining.