How Should Fruits and Vegetables Be Washed?

Patient Presentation
A 6-month-old male came to clinic for his health supervision visit. He was doing well overall and his mother said that she was making her own baby food which he was taking well. She had already given him 3 different types of vegetables. “I want to give him the best food, and I am using a commercial food wash to clean the vegetables. But I’m worried that they still may not be getting clean, what do you recommend?” she asked.

The pertinent physical exam showed a healthy appearing male with normal vital signs and growth parameters in the 10-50%. The neurological examination was normal and developmentally the child was sitting without assistance and had no head lag when pulled to a seated position. The diagnosis of a healthy male was made. “I don’t really have an opinion about using one of the commercial food washes, but I would recommend that if you use it, you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations especially. If it says to soak or rinse the food in a certain way or length of time, that is how it is supposed to be use and how it was tested,” he replied. “Usually washing foods thoroughly with a large amount of clean water is a good idea. Keeping the kitchen surfaces clean and separating how you prepare protein and raw foods such as fruits and vegetables is important. Most importantly, infants and young children should not be given foods that could be choking hazards and there are a few foods that aren’t recommended for home preparation for baby foods. We can go over those,” he said.

Fruits and vegetables are great sources of nutrition and often are eaten raw. However, they can become contaminated during harvest, transportation, production, preparation and storage. Produce accounts for about half of all foodborne illness and about 20% of foodborne deaths. Outbreaks have been associated with all food sources including home gardens, local farms and large scale commercial food operations. Vegetables most associated with illness are leafy green vegetables, herbs and sprouts.

Learning Point
What are the best ways to keep raw fruits and vegetables safe?

  • “Wash your hands with hot soapy water before and after preparing food.
  • Clean your counter top, cutting boards, and utensils after peeling produce and before cutting and chopping. Bacteria from the outside of raw produce can be transferred to the inside when it is cut or peeled. Wash kitchen surfaces and utensils with hot, soapy water after preparing each food item.
  • Do not wash produce with soaps or detergents. [They are not designed for this and residual product may be retained on the food. Fruits and vegetables are also porous and may absorb the detergent.]
  • Use clean potable cold water to wash items. [Some people recommend distilled water as it has been purified and filtered to remove contaminants.]
  • For produce with thick skin, use a vegetable brush to help wash away hard-to-remove microbes.
  • Produce with a lot of nooks and crannies like cauliflower, broccoli or lettuce should be soaked for 1 to 2 minutes in cold clean water.
  • Some produce such as raspberries should not be soaked in water. Put fragile produce in a colander and spray it with distilled water.
  • After washing, dry with clean paper towel. This can remove more bacteria.
  • Eating on the run? Fill a spray bottle with distilled water and use it to wash apples and other fruits.
  • Don’t forget that homegrown, farmers market, and grocery store fruits and vegetables should also be well washed.
  • Do not rewash packaged products labeled “ready-to-eat,” “washed” or “triple washed.” [It could actually become contaminated from your home food preparation area.]
  • Once cut or peeled, refrigerate as soon as possible at 40ºF or below.
  • Do not purchase cut produce that is not refrigerated.”

Washing just before the food is eaten is a common recommendation.

Leafy green vegetables should be stored within 2 hours of harvesting or purchasing at 35-45°F. They can be soaked in cold water for a few minutes, then change the water and repeat. Dry in a colander, strainer or salad spinner. Another option is to soak the greens in 1/2 cup of vinegar and 2 cups of water followed by a clean water rinse.

In a study that tested blueberries soaked in distilled water for 1-2 minutes against 3 different commercial fruit and vegetable washes (that followed the manufacturers instructions) it was found that 1 commercial product was the same as the distilled water wash for removing pesticides, and distilled water was better than the 2 other washes tested. The University of Maine which conducted the study recommends to “[s]oak all produce for one to two minutes to reduce the risk of food-borne illness.” They also state that “You can also use… very clean cold tap water to clean produce instead of distilled water.”

The Iowa State University Extension offered a home recipe for a fruit and vegetable wash: “1 quart water, 2T. baking soda, 2 T. grapefruit or other acidic juice and 1 tsp cream of tartar. This mixture can be refrigerated for up to 2-3 weeks and is safe for human consumption.”

Overall properly washing or soaking in cold water will significantly reduce bacterial and other contaminants, and drying also aids this reduction.

Questions for Further Discussion
1. What foods should not be used for homemade baby food? Click here to review.
2. What are developmental milestones for solid food readiness? Click here to review.
3. What are the recommendations for starting peanut containing foods for children at risk for food allergies? Click here to review.

Related Cases

To Learn More
To view pediatric review articles on this topic from the past year check PubMed.

Evidence-based medicine information on this topic can be found at, the National Guideline Clearinghouse and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Information prescriptions for patients can be found at MedlinePlus for these topics: Food Safety and Foodborne Illness.

To view current news articles on this topic check Google News.

To view images related to this topic check Google Images.

To view videos related to this topic check YouTube Videos.

The University of Maine Extension. Bulletin #4336, Best Ways to Wash Fruits and Vegetables.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 2013, cited 4/13/18).

Marrs, Beth. Iowa State University Extension. Washing Fruits and Vegetables.
Available from the Internet at (rev. 1/13/14, cited 4/13/18).

University of Connecticut Extension. Wash Your Veggies (and Fruits)
Available from the Internet at (rev. 3/12/14, cited 4/13/18).

Donna M. D’Alessandro, MD
Professor of Pediatrics, University of Iowa