Wet fruit is a mold magnet capable of producing toxins and causing serious allergic reactions
A common – and sensible – reaction to purchasing fresh fruit (especially if it’s conventional) is to wash it before you eat it. In fact, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) gives three good reasons to always wash produce: soil, microbes, and pesticides. After all, every year non-organic farmers and big AG companies spray over one billion pounds of synthetic pesticides on crops in order to combat weeds and insects.
EWG experts analyzed 2014 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and found that nearly 75 percent of fruit samples had traces of at least one pesticide. And even organic farmers spray “natural” pesticides on their produce.
However, while the instinct to wash fresh fruit is backed by scientific data, there is one habit you should enforce when storing fruit.
If you want to extend the shelf life and decrease the chance of fresh fruit spoiling prematurely, you should never wash it before refrigerating. Washed fruit is likely dripping with excess moisture, and the cool refrigerator can cause moist fruits to decay faster.
“I live in the Portland, OR area where we have an abundance of gorgeous fruit this time of year, and I never wash it before storing,” explains Devon Palmanteer of the Sears Wellness Institute. “The main reason is the moisture leads to faster spoilage especially with delicate fruits like berries.” And because soft fruits contain high levels of moisture, they become more vulnerable to mold because it’s easier for it to penetrate the soft skin. These foods are particularly hazardous since the mold may spread further than the skin, tricking an unsuspecting person into thinking it’s OK to consume since they’ve trimmed off the visible portions.
While it’s important to do your best to wash off those pesticides on the outside of your fruit, it’s important to know when to wash them.
Here are two additional reasons why you should hold off on washing fresh fruit until right before eating it.
1. High Amounts Of Moisture Can Cause Toxic Mold
Washing fruit and then placing it directly into the refrigerator can cause it to spoil prematurely. Palmanteer says some fruits already have a built-in guard against spoilage that washing can ruin. “Some fruits like grapes have their own protective coating. That’s the white film you see on the outside of grapes,” she explains. “If you wash that protective coating away immediately, the fruit has the likelihood of going bad much faster.”
Excessive moisture leads to moldy fruit and potential hazardous toxins such as mycotoxins and aflatoxins. While most people would recognize a piece of moldy fruit before consuming it, Palmanteer warns it may not always be easy to spot the mold. “I don’t think a person would willingly bite into a piece of moldy fruit,” she says. “But if it’s a soft fruit with high water content, even if you cut the moldy parts off, you may still be consuming some mold. It will spread quickly in high moisture foods and is sometimes harder to detect.”
The main health concerns with mold are that it can produce toxins and cause allergic reactions. It’s difficult to predict exactly how someone could react to mold exposure. People with compromised immune systems are at especially high risk for health complications related to mold. The bottom line is that people should definitely avoid eating spoiled fruit or any pieces with visible mold.
2. Premature decay can send your fruit costs soaring
Another negative effect of washing fruit before refrigeration is that it can have a huge impact on your budget. If your fruit goes bad faster, you toss more of it in the garbage, which is a waste of food and money. Before you know it, you could blow your whole grocery budget on fruit!
Instead, properly store fruit in the refrigerator and wash it before eating. “While washing is not going to guarantee there is no bacteria on the fruit, you do want to remove the dirt and microbes that it may have picked up while being packed or handled in the store,” explains Palmanteer. Cleaning produce with vinegar can help kill additional bacteria, depending on the type of fruit. Vinegar washes are not recommended with soft-skinned produce like peaches or apricots.
Wash Outside Fruit Before Cutting Into It
It’s also good to get into the practice of washing the outside of fruit you may cut into, for example a melon. Otherwise, Palmanteer says the knife can pull the bacteria from the outside to the inside part of the fruit you consume.
“My advice for storing would be to make sure the fruit is dry and don’t leave it in sealed plastic bags that can trap moisture,” she says. There are products such as produce bags that reduce the ethylene gas caused by ripening fruit and can help it stay fresh longer.
And when it’s time to eat the fruit, the best method for washing is the simplest route: clean running water. According to the EWG, the Food and Drug Administration cautions against using soap or commercial produce washes, because they haven’t evaluated the safety of residues that could be left on produce and because the effectiveness of produce washes is not standardized.
If you just can’t stand the idea of not washing fruit before you refrigerate it, just be sure to dry it really well before it gets stored. Consider using a salad spinner lined with paper towels to squeeze out excess moisture with fruits like berries, grapes, and cherries.
Palmanteer says the remedy that tops all of the others, however, is simply to consume the fruit before it even has a chance of spoiling. “You should be eating enough that it doesn’t have time to go bad anyway,” she says.