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Fruit and Vegetables - Cleaning

Fruits and Vegetables, Keep 'em Clean

What do Schaeffer, Tribology, Krylon and Shell have in common?  Well, one of the things they share is the fact that they are all manufacturers of food grade lubricants.  Schaeffer has Penetro 90, Tribology produces Tech-Lube, Krylon manufactures Tri-Flow, and Shell is the maker of Cassida.  These products are not designed to grease food, lubricate food, or cover it with some sort of a protective coating.  They are designed to be used with the machinery and equipment with which food might come in contact at food processing and packaging plants. 

Why food grade lubricants?  As Shell puts it, “It is virtually impossible to guarantee that lubricants used in food manufacturing plants don’t come into contact with the food products…. Oil droplets can fling off machinery in fast-moving applications or grease can drip from bearings or conveyors…. Also, contamination can occur at any point through simple human error or equipment failure, such as hydraulic hose failure.”  In other words, it is possible for these lubricating products to become what is known as indirect food additives.  Fortunately, the food handling companies that are using these synthetic, high performance lubes and greases are using products that are considered “harmless if accidentally consumed in quantities below the maximum prescribed level.”  

Bright, Shiny Apples 

These accidental contaminants are not the only foreign substances that may be found on your fresh fruits and vegetables.  In some cases, these “additives” are intentional.  For instance, many fruits and vegetables are given a wax coating prior to delivery to your local grocery store.  Apples are a prime example.  Contrary to what some may say, however, this is not done simply to improve their shine and make these foods more attractive to consumers – though that may be a beneficial side effect as far as the distributor is concerned.   

Fruits and vegetables like apples come with a natural wax coating.  It seals in moisture and allows them to maintain that vital crispness and juicy taste.  Unfortunately, the normal brushing and washing that takes place after harvest removes more than the unwanted twigs, leaves and field dirt.  It also takes away that original wax coating.  To replace it, a commercial grade wax is needed, and a light covering is applied. 

These waxes are specially made for the process.  They are composed of natural ingredients, and are certified by government sanctioned agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to be safe to eat. “They come from natural sources including carnauba wax, from the leaves of a Brazilian palm; candellia wax, derived from reed-like desert plants;… and food-grade shellac, which comes from a secretion of the lac bug found in India and Pakistan.” (from the U.S. Apple Association) 

Safe, But… 

Much testing has been done, and the consumer is assured that “no known harm” has been associated with the consumption of these additional ingredients.  Still, not everybody wants to add lac bug secretions or even minute quantities of food grade grease products to their diet.  As well, these do not exhaust the list of possible contaminants.  Mention has not been made of residual traces of herbicides, pesticides or fungicides which just might be present.  And what about chance encounters with salmonella or e coli bacteria?  Fresh fruits and vegetables may be generally free of these unwanted add-ons, but one can never be entirely certain. 

So what is the best course of action?  Can anything be done to make what are probably already pretty safe foods to eat even safer? 

Soap and Water 

Rinsing under the tap might help.  A more thorough washing could be even better, although particular care would have to be taken with soft fruits.  Remember, too, that some of these incidental additives are actually designed to withstand high temperatures and to not mix with water. 

There are some who recommend rinsing with soap and water, but that might not be such a good idea, especially on porous fruits such as apples.  No matter how gentle those soaps and detergents may be on your hands, unless they are formulated for use on fruits and vegetables, they have not been brought to the market with the intent that they might be an edible product.  In other words, why replace one contaminant with another? 

Cleaning Options

 For those who would like to invest in them, there are in-home food sanitizers that are available.  These specialty, counter top appliances do an exceptionally good job when it comes to the cleaning of food.  They are quick and easy to use and highly efficient.  They are, however, truly an investment, for at prices that can range from just under $200 to over $400, they are not inexpensive. 

A much less costly, though perhaps not quite as efficient, alternative would be the various food wipes, washes and sprays that are now on the market.  These commercial products normally cost only a few dollars and can be very useful in your fight against microbes, pesticides, fungicides and other contaminants.  Many would consider those few dollars as a few dollars well spent.  Even if they aren’t quite as efficient with quite as many contaminants, they still work quite well.

Of course, it is still possible to come up with a do-it-yourself solution.  Clean water might not get everything, but it can get a lot.  The best time to do that washing, though, is just before use, not when the produce is being placed into the refrigerator or elsewhere for storage.  That way you help to avoid the possibility of cross contamination.  When it comes to fragile berry fruits such as strawberries or raspberries, the use of a colander and kitchen sink sprayer can help immensely.  If there is no kitchen sink sprayer, dip the colander into and out a pot of water until the water remains clear.  Don’t allow the fruit to become saturated for it will lose texture, flavour and aroma.  Believe it or not, slightly warm water is usually better than cold for it seems to enhance those flavours. 

On the other hand, produce such as radishes, lettuce and other greens should be washed in the coldest water possible so as to retain crispness.  A paper towel may be used for drying unless the produce being cleaned is intended for immediate cooking rather than for salads or other fresh uses. 

For hardier fruits and vegetables such as potatoes, carrots or cucumbers the use of an appropriately designed brush is recommended.  These can be helpful in removing not only surface dirt, but also waxes and other surface adhering contaminants. 

Vinegar and Hydrogen Peroxide

Finally, consideration might be given to some sort of a disinfectant which would be used prior to your final washing.  Nothing elaborate is needed. Susan Sumner, a food scientist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as quoted in Total Renewal: 7 Key Steps to Resilience, Vitality & Long-Term Health, suggests the use of white vinegar and 3% hydrogen peroxide.  The vinegar is obtainable at any grocery store, the hydrogen peroxide solution at almost any drug store or pharmacy.  These ingredients are not toxic, they are inexpensive, and they can be used not only on the fruits and vegetables but as sanitizers for counter tops and cutting boards. 
Her instructions: 

  1. Place the vinegar and hydrogen peroxide into individual spray bottles.
  2. When spraying the produce or work surfaces, use the vinegar first and then the hydrogen peroxide.
  3. Rinse under clean, running water, or, in the case of work surfaces, wipe with a clean, wet sponge or cloth.
This simple solution may be all that is required -- if, of course, you determine that anything is required.  The final decision is yours, for it is up to you decide just how clean should "clean" be.

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