There's a right way and a wrong way.

By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
May 24, 2021

You know that fresh fruits and vegetables are good for you. But you may be wondering if you really need to wash them and if so, how? Here's the lowdown on the best ways to wash fresh produce from your local farmer's market and grocery store—or even your own backyard.

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Credit: Getty Images

Why should you wash your produce?

The reason to wash fresh fruits and veggies is to rinse away soil, microbes, and pesticides. Sometimes you'll see visible soil on leafy greens and other veggies, which can be unappetizing and add a gritty texture to your meal. Microbial pathogens found on produce, including E. coli, salmonella, and the microbes that cause norovirus, can result in foodborne illness.

Research ties pesticide residue to negative health effects, too. For example, dietary pesticides may be associated with adverse reproductive consequences for women, specifically a lower probability of pregnancy and live birth following infertility treatment, as Health previously reported. Men's fertility may also be negatively impacted by eating produce with high levels of pesticide residue, according to a study from the journal Human Reproduction Consumption.

Here's how you should wash your fruits and vegetables

There are solid, science-based ways to wash your fruits and veggies at home. But first, a few methods aren't recommended. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not advise washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, or commercial produce wash. "Produce is porous, so soap and household detergents can be absorbed by fruits and vegetables, despite thorough rinsing, and can make you sick," the agency says. The FDA also notes that the safety of the residues of commercial produce washes is not known.

Instead, here's what the FDA does recommend: Before you prepare and/or eat produce, wash it all thoroughly under cold, running water. And for firm produce, such as cucumbers, scrub it with a clean produce brush, like this ring-shaped cleaning brush from Full Circle ($5; amazon.com). "After washing, dry produce with a clean cloth towel or paper towel to further reduce bacteria that may be present on the surface," the FDA adds.

For items like bagged greens or baby carrots that are "pre-washed, ready-to-eat," the FDA says you can eat the produce without further washing if that's clearly stated on the packaging.

So washing fruits and vegetables with water will remove even the pesticides?

In most cases, washing and soaking can only lead to a certain degree of reduction in pesticide residue level, according to a 2018 study from Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture. If appropriate, peeling your produce can reduce pesticide residues more effectively. But it's important to note that the benefits of eating five to seven servings of produce daily far outweigh the risks of pesticides. In other words, even if washing doesn't completely remove residues, you will better protect your health by consuming fruits and veggies as compared to avoiding them.

Compared with conventionally grown veggies and fruits, organically grown produce has been shown to contain lower detectable levels of pesticide residue. However, even organic, fresh produce must be washed before you consume it.

Can you use vinegar to wash your fruits and vegetables?

You might have heard that vinegar is one way to clean your produce. But an investigation that looked at the efficacy of different cleaning methods, including a vinegar solution, in reducing bacterial contamination on fresh produce agrees with the FDA's water-only guidelines.

In the study, lettuce, broccoli, apples, and tomatoes were exposed to bacteria and then cleaned with either a two-minute soak in tap water, commercial produce wash, 5% vinegar solution, 13% lemon solution, rinse under running tap water, rinse and rub under running tap water, brush under running tap water, or wet/dry paper towel wipe.

The researchers found that the results did vary a bit based on the type of produce. For example, presoaking in water before rinsing significantly reduced bacteria in apples, tomatoes, and lettuce, but not in broccoli. And levels of bacteria on the surface of lettuce after soaking in lemon or vinegar solutions were not significantly different from those on lettuce soaked in cold tap water. However, overall, the scientists determined that, before consumption, the best approach is to wash produce under cold, running tap water, and rub or brush where applicable.

Produce safety doesn't stop at washing

Apart from washing your produce, there are other important tips for keeping your fruits and veggies safe to eat. First, choose produce that isn't bruised or damaged. Also, keep fruits and vegetables away from foods like raw meat, poultry, and seafood in your grocery cart and when you get home. When prepping food, be sure to use a separate cutting board for raw produce, and never place salad or cut-fresh produce on a plate or surface that previously held raw meat, poultry, seafood, or eggs. Finally, store pre-cut and highly perishable fresh fruits and veggies (such as berries, melon, and lettuce) in the fridge, and be sure it's set at a temperature of 40° F or below. If you're not sure whether an item should be refrigerated to keep its quality, ask your grocer or grower.

Once you've properly washed your fruits and veggies, reap their rewards

A diet rich in produce seriously ups your intake of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants. Eating more veggies and fruit can also help manage blood pressure, reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent some types of cancer, lower risk of eye and digestive problems, and support healthy weight management. Eating fresh produce has also been shown in research to support mental health, including reducing psychological distress and improving optimism.

To best benefit from including more produce in your daily routine, use the tips in this article to keep it safe to eat. Also, aim for a variety of types and colors to expose your body to an even broader spectrum of the health protective compounds veggies and fruit provide.

Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a private practice performance nutritionist who has consulted for five professional sports teams.

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