What’s the right way to wash your food? It’s not a simple question to answer. Filtered water? Carbonated water? A bit of dish soap? Two drops of bleach?
This is an odd, but question often asked, especially when it comes to produce and the slew of outbreaks linked to produce items in the last few months. What is really the best way to wash your food?
Competing theories, folk wisdom, and other questionable sources of information abound. We’re hoping to bring some clarity to the situation by putting together a guide to help you figure out what’s what. If you’re interested in whether you should wash raw chicken before cooking or whether the E. coli outbreak this past spring could have been prevented by washing lettuce, then read on below:
- Wash your hands, your cutting board, and your colander: This might seem like a no-brainer, but you should wash up to ensure that you’re working with a clean and sterile environment before you get down to scrubbing. Start by washing your hands; use plenty of soap, remember to get the backs and the spaces between your fingers, and rub them together vigorously. Make sure that the water you use is hot and soapy. You should use hot, soapy water to clean your surfaces and utensils as well – counters, cutting boards, etc. Washing your surfaces and cookware beforehand is important; if you don’t take the time to do this, you’re likely to wash microorganisms on and into your food instead of washing them off.
- Soak and rinse vegetables and fruit: If you want to get rid of pathogens and dirt on your vegetables or fruit, give them a soak and a rinse. According to NPR, researchers at Tennessee State University have investigated this question at length. They found that soaking fruit and veggies in water before rinsing them under running water significantly reduced the number of pathogens present. If the fruit or veggie has a hard rind or skin on it, you can further reduce microorganisms on the surface by giving the produce a rub while you’re running it under water.
- Don’t wash your chicken: Back in the day, washing raw chicken was very common. In fact, your grandma probably swore by it. But it is a whole new world, a new generation. As NPR pointed out, it was recommended and practiced by pretty much everyone, including public-facing chefs and food personalities like Julia Child. Forget what you know. Washing chicken isn’t an effective method for getting rid of pathogens that might be on the meat. All you’re likely to do is accidentally splash and spread those pathogens over your hands, your sink, and the surfaces in your kitchen. What does kill the pathogens you might find in you chicken (or any other kind of meat, really) is cooking at a high enough heat. Bring the internal temperature up to 165 and any bacteria present are unlikely to survive.
- Wash beans and lentils: This is another tip from NPR. Rinsing helps to get rid of dirt that might be hanging around on your legumes, of course, but there’s other good reasons to do it. If you’ve got celiac disease, there’s a chance that trace amounts of gluten can end up on products like beans. That’s because different kinds of grains are often grown side-by-side, rotated through the same field, or stored or packaged together. You can avoid cross-contamination of grains that would otherwise be celiac safe with trace amounts of gluten by giving your lentils a rinse before you eat them.
- Wash your rice: Rice is a staple grain for much of the world’s population. It also harbors a dirty secret: it’s like a straw for sucking up arsenic from the soil. Rice likes water. The structure of rice makes it particularly adept at taking up the poisonous stuff. Eat enough rice, and you’re bound to absorb a fair amount of arsenic yourself, which can cause some nasty health problems in the long term. Luckily, there’s a simple way to reduce the amount of arsenic in the rice that you eat. Soak it overnight and give it a good washing, and you can reduce the arsenic content of rice by half. You can flush a further 30% of arsenic by cooking with five parts water to one part rice.
- Wash just before eating: Don’t wash your food, and then let it sit around. Wash it immediately before cooking or eating it. Why? Because bacteria grow like crazy on wet surfaces. Wash something and leave it out wet and you’re likely to do more harm than good. Patting with a paper towel post-wash, on the other hand, can help to reduce microbial spread. Just remember to cook or eat as soon after as you can. If not, keep it in its produce bag in your refrigerator until its ready to eat.
- Don’t bother with baking soda: There is some evidence that washing with baking soda can help to break down pesticides present on fruits or veggies. In the United States, however, pesticide use is very tightly regulated. There aren’t enough pesticides on store-bought greens to harm the consumer, even in the long term, so the baking-soda bath isn’t really necessary.
- Short of full sterilization, you’ll have some bacteria: None of the methods listed above are 100% foolproof. But they still reduce the risk of foodborne illness. While most work to reduce the number of microorganisms you might be exposed to, none will entirely wipe them out. Some common offenders like E. coli can’t be removed by washing; to kill them, you need to cook the vegetable in question. That’s why it’s important to remember that foods served raw (like salad) are never entirely safe. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat them. Just exercise caution and common sense when you head to the salad bar.We hope this article has brought to rest some concerns about washing your food – meat and produce included. Either way you go, keep washing, unless of course, it’s chicken.
By: Sean McNulty, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)