(Image credit: Jenny Huang)
This week, I’m writing about whether or not it’s safe to eat fresh fruits and vegetables during the coronavirus pandemic.
As it happens, my 83-year-old vegan mom also asked me this question last week, so I spent a few hours reading up on the subject. Also as it happens, renowned nutritionist (and my advisor in graduate school) Dr. Marion Nestle wrote about the same topic this week in her excellent blog, Food Politics, which made my job even easier.
So here’s the answer:
Yes, it’s still safe to eat fresh fruits and vegetables because COVID-19 is not known to be transmitted through food.
According to reports from the FDA here, the USDA here, the CDC here, the European Food Safety Authority here, and Serious Eats here (which has an exceptionally well-written guide on the coronavirus and the safety of food in grocery stores and restaurants), there is no current evidence to support transmission of COVID-19 through food or food packaging.
Also, studies of previous coronavirus outbreaks SARS and MERS show that transmission through food did not occur. There’s currently no reason to suggest that COVID-19 will be any different.
So that’s what the latest information shows. With that said, you should still wash your fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly to reduce bacteria and pesticides, especially if you’re buying non-organic produce. Which leads to another important question.
What’s the Best Way to Wash Fruits and Vegetables?
The latest information shows that not much has changed since before the coronavirus pandemic began. The recommendations are as varied as ever!
So I’ll refer you to NutritionFacts.org, my trusted resource, which superbly summarizes the latest in nutrition information. Nutrition Facts reports that recent studies show two methods were found to be the most effective in removing about 100% of pesticides.
The first method was soaking produce in plain, undiluted white vinegar. The only caveat is that using full-strength vinegar to wash your fruits and veggies each week can be expensive.
The second method was soaking produce in a mixture of one part salt to nine parts water. The only caution here is that you need to be sure to rinse away all of the salt water.
And if you’re wondering about other methods, studies also show that using tap water, or store-bought fruit and veggie washes, or vinegar diluted with water were found to be 50-80% likely to remove pesticides.
Here’s How I Do It
So with that said, l’ll tell you what I personally do. First, I only buy organic fruits and vegetables, so I don’t have to worry too much about pesticides. (If you’re able to do that, awesome; but if not, don’t let that stop you from buying fresh produce.)
To wash my leafy greens, I spread them out in a large bowl in the sink, add cold tap water to cover the greens, swish them around to loosen any grit, and let them soak for about 5 minutes. Then I pour out the water (keeping the greens in the bowl), fill the bowl up again with cold tap water, pour in white vinegar OR salt, swish the greens around again, then let them soak for another 5-10 minutes. Then I pour out the water, rinse the leaves individually under tap water and place them in a salad spinner. Then I spin it, pour out the excess water, place a paper towel on top of the greens, put the cover on top, and place the salad spinner in the fridge until I’m ready to eat the greens.
For other smooth-skinned fruits and vegetables, I soak and swish them once in the vinegar-water solution, then rinse them well. For cabbage and Brussels sprouts, I remove the outer leaves first, then rinse and wash them as I do the smooth-skinned vegetables. For broccoli and cauliflower, I rinse them under plain water, break off the florets, then let them soak in the vinegar-water solution before rinsing.
For fruits or vegetables with peels, I wash them before I peel or cut them, so residue isn’t transferred to the inside of the fruit.
As an added resource, check out the Environmental Working Group’s list of the Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen fresh fruits and vegetables with the least and most pesticides sprayed on them. You can also download the free PDF on your phone and use it as a guide for grocery shopping.
And if fresh fruits and vegetables (whether organic or not) aren’t available or practical, then frozen is an excellent second choice.