Food & Culture

The Best Ways to Remove Pesticides From Produce

Even the less-than-cautious among us probably give their fruits and vegetables a quick rinse under the tap before eating them. That's in an effort not only to wash off dirt and debris but also to remove any pesticides. You might go even further by using a vegetable brush or a store-bought veggie wash. How effective is all of that, really? More importantly, how worried should you be about pesticides in the first place?

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Scrub a Dub Dub

Lucky for you, science has tackled this problem before. Here's how effective the most popular produce-washing methods really are:

  • Plain water: A 2008 review published in the journal Food Research International found that tap water only reduced the residue of five different pesticides by 20 percent, at most — but at least it's something. Distilled or filtered water may be more effective, and a good several-minute soak can go even further, especially for cutting down on bacteria.
  • Soap: Soap isn't meant for washing food, and it's not clear how effective it is against pesticides. It could also possibly seep into the produce, making you ingest another non-food chemicals on top of the ones you were trying to wash away. We don't recommend it.

  • Commercial veggie washes: A study in 2000 by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station found that washing certain fruits and vegetables with a commercial veggie wash was no more effective than rinsing them under tap water for a minute when it came to getting rid of pesticides. Researchers at the University of Maine got the same result for reducing bacteria. The verdict: don't waste your money.
  • Vinegar: The Food Research review found that washing tomatoes in a vinegar solution significantly reduced the residues of six different pesticides, some by as much as 94 percent. And in 2007, a Cook's Illustrated test found that vinegar reduced 98 percent of the bacteria on apples and pears. Cheap, nontoxic — what's not to like? Try filling a spray bottle with one part vinegar to three parts water and keep it next to the sink.
  • Baking soda: In October 2017, researchers from the University of Massachusetts published a study in the journal Agricultural and Food Chemistry that said soaking apples in a baking soda and water solution for 12–15 minutes can remove almost every trace of pesticides from the fruit's surface. If you have the time, this one's a winner for sure.

It should be mentioned that none of these fixes can remove pesticides that have already seeped into the fruits and vegetables. If you're really worried (which you probably shouldn't be), general preparation methods like peeling, cooking, and canning can remove a substantial amount of pesticides throughout the produce. Peeling goes further than washing by removing the layer that the pesticides have reached; cooking and canning works because many pesticides degrade in heat.

A Few Caveats

Why not just buy organic? you might ask. Contrary to popular belief, organic produce is grown with pesticides, too. The pesticides just can't be synthetic (and as we've mentioned before, whether a chemical is synthesized from scratch or just perfected from a natural source doesn't say anything about its safety).

In 2011, researchers at UC Davis found that the organic versions of the so-called "dirty dozen" list of fruits and vegetables that pose the highest pesticide risk aren't any safer. They also say that pesticides on those fruits and vegetables were way, way below the acceptable limit set by the EPA, and that the list "lacks scientific credibility" to boot.

But if you're still concerned, take a few precautions. Keep a spray bottle of diluted vinegar on hand for quick rinses and baking soda for when you have the time. Peel or cook the fruits and veggies you're most worried about. But don't stop eating them. The science is in on that front, and it says that you should eat your fruits and veggies if you want to live a healthy life.

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For a balanced look at the work being done to feed the world, check out "Tomorrow's Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food" by Pamela C. Ronald, a geneticist, and Raoul W. Adamchak, an organic farmer. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer November 27, 2017

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