Why You Shouldn’t Wash Produce With Soap During The Coronavirus Crisis

Cleaning fruits and vegetables with soap can cause gastrointestinal issues that mimic the symptoms of Covid-19.

If you’ve been frantically washing your produce in soapy water in hopes of scrubbing away the novel coronavirus, you’re definitely not alone. But food safety experts actually advise against this.

Even though soap is a kitchen staple and is effective at preventing the spread of the virus, it’s designed for cleaning surfaces and hands, and isn’t formulated with consumption in mind — meaning scrubbing your apples with soap isn’t a good idea, even if you’re worried about reducing virus transmission.

To learn more about the do’s and don’ts of produce cleaning, we reached out to food safety experts. Here’s what we learned:

Why isn’t it a good idea to wash produce with soap?

Consuming soap can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and other forms of gastrointestinal distress. Not only are those unpleasant, but they mimic some of the symptoms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, and could send you to the hospital, placing undue stress on our already-overburdened health care workers and facilities.

Gastrointestinal distress generally happens after consuming soap in relatively large quantities, but food safety experts say it’s still not a good idea to wash your produce with soap. Washing with soap can also impact the flavour of your food.

“Consumers should not wash fruits and vegetables with detergent or soap,” the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes in an online fact sheet. “You could ingest residues from soap or detergent absorbed on the produce.”

Washing your produce in water alone is a better alternative than using soap.
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images
Washing your produce in water alone is a better alternative than using soap.

Don Schaffner, extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University, likens the use of soap on produce to using a BB gun to kill a fly. “It might work,” he said. “But it’s probably not the best tool.”

If soap isn’t advised, how can I clean my produce?

In a world where everything feels increasingly complicated, cleaning your produce is as simple as it gets — all you need to do is gently rub your produce while rinsing with running water. “There’s no need to use soap or a produce wash,” the Food and Drug Administration said in an online tip sheet. For firm produce like melons, cucumbers, carrots and avocados, you can also use a clean scrubbing brush, but this could damage softer produce.

Based on research related to food-borne illnesses and other viruses, somewhere between 90% and 99% of what’s on the produce can be removed with running water, explains Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University.

“We really can’t get much better than that by adding [anything] to the water,” Chapman said. “That’s kind of as good as it gets.”

Sometimes microbes can attach to crevices or other parts of a fruit or vegetable that water can’t reach. But adding soap isn’t going to do any better than water alone, he said.

Since there’s currently no evidence that Covid-19 spreads through food, produce washing guidelines are the same as they would be if we weren’t facing a pandemic. This includes a step that’s particularly important these days — thoroughly washing your hands with warm water and soap both before and after preparing your produce. Other FDA recommendations include removing damaged or bruised areas before preparing or eating, rinsing produce before peeling or cutting, drying produce after washing it and removing the outer leaves from lettuce and cabbage.

Does water temperature matter?

It’s ideal to rinse your produce in cool water, since hot water can cause wilting or damage. Many people are drawn to rinsing their produce with warm or hot water in hopes that it will kill the virus, but killing any virus or bacteria would require water so hot that it would actually cook or damage your produce and burn your hands.

Chapman said warm water is fine, “but you’re not going to get any further removal than you would if it was just cold.”

Should I wash produce as soon as I get home, or right before I use it?

Chapman suggests rinsing your fruits and vegetables before eating rather than as soon as you get home from the store, as rinsing right away could cause your produce to go bad faster. There are active compounds on the produce that keep it from decaying, he explains, and these are removed when rinsing. But if washing your produce as soon as you get home makes you feel better, that’s a fine option.

Are special produce washes effective?

Schaffner said produce washes are likely safe and effective, but many haven’t been tested in a rigorous scientific way, so it’s hard to say if they’re more effective in removing bacteria and viruses than simply rinsing with water. “And of course nothing out there has been evaluated against this new coronavirus,” he said.

Can I make my own produce wash?

Many DIY fruit and veggie wash recipes call for a combination of water, vinegar, grapefruit seed extract or lemon juice, and baking soda. Chapman said there’s no harm in using these, but you might end up with vinegar-tasting produce.

Plus, they’re more expensive than using water alone, and there’s no evidence that vinegar is effective in destroying the novel coronavirus. Given that there isn’t any research to show a reduced risk of disease transmission when using a handmade wash, your money could probably be better spent in other places.

Do I need to leave produce outside my house before bringing it in?

There’s not a lot of evidence to show that leaving produce and other groceries outside the house for a few days is necessary or effective in reducing virus transmission.

Chapman points out that for this to be effective, it would depend on factors like temperature, relative humidity and whether a virus is even present on the food. As of now, we don’t have any indication that food is a vehicle for Covid-19 illness, so it’s hard to say if leaving food outdoors or in a garage for three days would matter.

“If I want to do what I can, I could just rinse it underwater to achieve the same thing,” Chapman said. Washing your hands after handling produce and other foods from the supermarket is important too, he said.

From what we know about coronavirus transmission, handling produce should be a smaller concern than being in close proximity to people who have the virus, such as while at the supermarket, since the disease more likely spreads through respiratory droplets than on food and other surfaces.

“The biggest risk in acquiring produce for dinner is going to the grocery store and being around other people,” Schaffner said. “That’s the big risk. It’s not in how you wash it or whether you wash it. It’s really all about social distancing and staying home from the grocery store if you’re sick.”

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