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That’s just one of the produce-cleaning habits that can promote the spread of bacteria, pesticide residues and even parasites, potentially leading to food poisoning or other illnesses. In August 2015, there was an outbreak of an intestinal illness, cyclospora, which is often linked with produce and fresh herbs. But chances are there are many more minor illnesses and health problems resulting from improper washing in kitchens across Canada.
Though improper produce washing doesn't always make you sick, it's best to be safe, especially in households with children, seniors or pregnant women—all of who may have weaker immune systems.
Here’s what you need to know about getting rid of the bacteria, pesticide residues and dirt on your fruits and vegetables, with advice from Health Canada and others.
1. Wash your hands first. Yes, you could have germs on your hands and spread them to your produce or fruit.
2. Cut away bruised or damaged bits. The tricky little areas can harbour bacteria. Wash the knife if you’re using it again to chop the produce afterward. And, ideally, wash your knife or peeler each time you start working with a new fruit or vegetable.
3. Skip the special soaps and sprays. Use cold, fresh water from the tap—even if you plan to peel the fruits and veggies. There are exceptions—you don’t have to wash bananas, for example—but it's important to wash foods like melons where bacteria from the rind could enter the fruit. Rinse under running water so the force of the water can do the work. Studies have show that most pesticide residues will wash down the drain, but the root of the fruit or vegetable will have absorbed some pesticides during the growth process. If this concerns you, shop organic.
4. Don’t submerge produce in a sink filled with water. The sink itself may have bacteria in it, which can be transferred to your food.
5. Use a scrub brush for foods with tough skins. (Think oranges, melons, potatoes and carrots.) Again, even if you don't eat the skin, bacteria can be drawn into the fruit or vegetable flesh by your knife when you cut into it.
6. You don’t have to wash prewashed greens. But if cut veggies or lettuces are in an open container, give them a rinse under cold water. You may want to discard the outer leaves on cabbage and other firm greens.
7. Heat it up. Cooking will kill most of the bacteria on your food.
Learn more about how to clean avocados and cantaloupe with these tips. And once you've cleaned its curly green leaves, here’s a look at our top kale recipes.