How clean is your food?

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photo credit: mattieb via photopin cc

From dirt and fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and antibiotics, to pathogens spread from shoppers at the grocery store, our food is a lot dirtier that we often imagine it to be. Here are some quick tips to help you clean up your diet -literally!

What’s the big deal, anyway?

According to Prevention Magazine, of the 200,000 to 800,000 cases of food poisoning Americans get each day, experts think that one-third could come from produce. And according to FoodPoisonJournal.com, Fruit and vegetables are now responsible for more large-scale outbreaks of food-borne illnesses than meat, poultry or eggs, accounting for 12 percent of all food-borne illnesses and 6 percent of the outbreaks. One of the most important things that you can do to lower the risk of food poisoning is to thoroughly wash produce before you eat it.

Buy fresh, clean-looking produce

This goes without saying. You don’t have to examine each item with a magnifying glass, but just be sure it looks overall clean and fresh, not like it’s been sitting at the bottom of the produce pile for a week. You should also never purchase produce that has punctured or broken skin, as this gives salmonella a place to enter the flesh. When buying a head of lettuce, I do recommend taking a quick peek at some of the inner leaves – there have been a few rare occasions where the lettuce I purchased was so completely full of dirt that I actually had to return it. When in doubt, don’t buy it!

Start with clean hands

Wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds under warm water to avoid transferring more germs to your produce. Also make sure that any knives, cutting boards, and work surfaces you may use are clean.

Washing 101

Washing produce before storing may promote bacterial growth and speed up spoilage, so it is often recommended to wait and wash fruits and vegetables just before use.

Different vegetables require different washing methods:

  • For greens, remove and discard the outer leaves. Cabbages and iceberg lettuce may require only an additional rinse, while looser greens (leaf lettuce, spinach, etc.) require a more thorough washing. Rinse each leaf on both sides under cold running water to be sure any dirt or particles are completely washed away.
  • Smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables such as apples and cucumbers should be washed well under running water or peeled.
  • Herbs can be washed by dipping and swirling in a bowl of clean water.
  • Root vegetables such as carrots and potatoes should be thoroughly scrubbed or peeled and then rinsed.
  • Melons with a rough skin, such as cantaloupe, provide lots of crevices for dirt and bacteria to gather. They should be washed and scrubbed thoroughly with a vegetable brush before slicing.
  • Mushrooms can either be wiped clean with a damp towel or rinsed under cold water while rubbing with fingers to remove dirt. It is a common misconception that rinsing mushrooms causes them to absorb water, giving them a rubbery texture, however it does make them slippery and difficult to hold onto while chopping, so if you decide to go this route, I recommend blotting them dry on a paper towel before slicing.

Washing with detergents or soap is not recommended, because the chemicals within them can easily be absorbed by the produce, leaving the food with a soapy taste. If you would like to make a natural cleanser for your produce, try mixing equal parts of white vinegar and water, and either spray it onto the produce, rubbing it in, then rinse it off, or soak the produce in the solution for a few minutes before rinsing. The acid in the vinegar will kill bacteria and help dissolve any wax and pesticide residues found on the skins.

The dirty dozen

When it comes to these 12 foods, you may want to opt for organic. The Environmental Working Group lists the following as the most heavily laden with pesticides:

1. Peaches
2. Apples
3. Sweet bell peppers
4. Celery
5. Nectarines
6. Strawberries
7. Cherries
8. Kale
9. Lettuce
10. Imported grapes
11. Carrots
12. Pears

The clean fifteen

On the flip sides, the Environmental Working Group lists 15 foods as the ‘cleanest’ with regards to pesticide residues:

1. Onions
2. Avocados
3. Sweet corn
4. Pineapples
5. Mangoes
6. Asparagus
7. Sweet peas
8. Kiwi
9. Cabbage
10. Eggplant
11. Papayas
12. Watermelon
13. Broccoli
14. Tomatoes
15. Sweet potatoes

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