University of Georgia experts say some produce washes are more effective at removing harmful pathogens from fresh fruits and vegetables than the chlorine rinses the food industry uses.
Larry Beuchat, a microbiologist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, has tested many produce washes in his Griffin, Ga., lab.
"I've tested produce washes that are currently on the market and some that are in the developmental stages," Beuchat said. "Some are as good as water when used to remove pathogenic bacteria from a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Some are perhaps even better than chlorine, which is used fairly extensively in the produce industry to wash fresh-cut produce."
Tested on Lettuce, Tomatoes, Apples and Alfalfa Sprouts
Beuchat says Fit, a Procter and Gamble product, worked well in lab tests. "Fit performs as well as high levels of chlorine when used to remove populations of bacteria on lettuce, tomatoes, apples and alfalfa seeds intended for sprouts," he said.
"The science is there to prove it removes these pathogens," he said. "But Procter and Gamble can't state that on the product label until they get EPA and FDA approval to do so."
But should you add Fit or other produce washes to your shopping cart? Beuchat said it's your decision.
"Whether you buy produce washes is a matter of personal choice," he said. "If you are concerned about pathogenic microorganisms on your produce, I would recommend buying it. I haven't tested all the products on the market. But in my experience, it does as good a job as chlorinated water and sometimes better."
Produce-wash manufacturers label their products as effective at removing pesticides. But UGA foods and nutrition specialists don't recommend buying the washes solely for this reason.
"In the United States, there's very little produce with pesticide residues anywhere near the allowed tolerance levels," said Elizabeth Andress, an Extension Service food safety specialist with the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences. "It would be hard to find detectable levels of pesticide residues on our fruits and vegetables even if you went looking for them."
Andress said the FDA safeguards fresh produce by monitoring pesticide residues at wholesale and retail levels.
"If you use a produce wash, you may be reducing the levels of pesticide residues. But the levels were nowhere near harmful to begin with," she said.
If you just want cleaner produce, Andress recommends washing produce under running water.
"Tests show produce washes do apparently make produce a little bit cleaner," Andress said. "But I would personally question whether they are worth the extra cost."
Don't Soak Produce in Washes
Despite the introduction of produce washes, UGA foods specialists still recommend cleaning fruits and vegetables under running water.
"What slightly concerns me is the way these products are applied," Andress said. "To clean produce, you have to soak the food in the produce wash. Soaking produce can damage the quality. I hope people don't let their fruits and vegetables sit in these solutions, thinking, 'the longer it soaks, the better.'"
Aside from cleaning produce and removing pesticides and pathogens, produce washes claim to remove wax.
"Even if the product does remove wax, these are food-grade waxes that aren't harmful," Andress said. "They're already approved for food use."
Produce washes have many uses. But as with other products, shoppers will ultimately determine their success.
"We aren't telling people produce washes aren't safe to use, because that's not true," Andress said. "They are effective. But to me, it's more of an economic issue. Is the cost really worth it? It depends on whether you want to pay for the added safeguard."
(Sharon Omahen is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)