The dirt on produce washes and their germ- and pesticide-busting powers

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Q Do those fruit wash sprays actually do anything? Do they remove E. coli and pesticides?

A Remember when eating an apple involved rubbing it on your pant leg, then sinking your teeth into it? Not that polishing fruit on a pair of jeans would actually do much, but the truth is we didn’t think it needed much cleaning. Now we’ve got lots to be freaked out about. E. coli soiling our spinach, salmonella on our tomatoes and, of course, pesticides on pretty much everything that ain’t organic. No wonder a market has evolved for those fruit and vegetable washes. The question is, do they work? And what do they work on?

Let’s start with the most sensational topic in vegetables these days: killer bacteria.

A microbiologist out of the University of Georgia actually found that all-natural Fit Fruit and Vegetable Wash did as well at removing bacteria on apples, lettuce and tomatoes as high levels of chlorine used by the industry to wash fresh cut fruit. The thing is you can’t really find it in stores anymore now that Procter & Gamble sold it off to HealthPro Brands earlier this year. But you can still order it online at

Overall, the researcher said that most produce washes work about as well as rinsing with chlorinated tap water. But to be fair, he was only testing American brands. T.O.-based Nature Clean makes a fruit and veggie wash that’s available at most health food and grocery stores, and it also claims to kill 93.7 per cent of E. coli and 93.6 per cent of salmonella. I have a bottle but to be honest, I find it leaves a weird aftertaste. I’ve had much better luck washing fruit with Nature Clean’s All Purpose Cleanser (which can be used as a fruit wash as well as a floor cleaner).

My family has long sworn by tossing a capful of drugstore hydrogen peroxide into a sinkful of water to do the job. I never knew whether it really did much, but after a little research it turns out my family isn’t crazy after all (or if we are, it’s for entirely different reasons). Microbiologists have found that 1 per cent hydrogen peroxide does reduce the presence of E. coli and salmonella on apples and cantaloupes.

A food scientist out of Virginia Polytechnic Institute developed a lab-tested recipe of her own that she claims is even more powerful than plain HP: a squirt of 3 per cent hydrogen peroxide, followed by a squirt of vinegar, then rinse. Supposedly, the combo is like a lethal one-two punch for bacteria.

Pesticides, however, are a whole other ball o’ melon. You’ll get totally different answers depending on who you talk to. Rinsing thoroughly with tap water should remove many surface pesticides, say pesticide residue experts like Thea Rawn and Jim Lawrence in a Carleton University publication. But pesticide residues still turn up on 20 per cent of the produce tested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency – and it rinses fruits and veggies in water before testing them.

Chat with the UK’s Pesticide Action Network and they’ll tell you that water has little effect on pesticides like diphenylamine (commonly used on apples) and chlorpropham (found on ‘taters). PAN UK says that using a product called Veggi-Wash ( on the other hand, got rid of 93.4 per cent of these two chemicals in their tests (compared to 30 per cent and 6.7 per cent with water). Fit claims to remove 98 per cent of pesticides.

I tend to think that anything that removes the wax on fruit (such as Fit or Veggi-Wash) can remove a whole other layer of embedded pesticides that water just won’t reach. But some pesticides do penetrate the skin and there’s not much you can do about these – unless, of course, you peel all your produce (kind of hard when it comes to stuff like spinach or red peppers). Plus the peel is where a lot of the nutrients reside (there’s not much nutritional value to a potato if you’re cutting away the skin). Best to buy certified organic fare and avoid the confusion.

Want to know which fresh goodies come coated with the greatest number of chems? The fabulous Environmental Working Group just put out a revised version of their Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. The EWG based their results on nearly 43,000 produce tests done by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration between 2000 and 2004. Their old ranking had spinach at the top of the worst offenders’ list – now peaches, apples and bell peppers round out the top three. For a look at the full list and all the surrounding deets, check out

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