By Sylvia Geiger, M.S., R.D.
Prewashed, ready-to-eat salad kits and their ilk are terrific ways to get us closer to our goals of eating more fruits and vegetables, virtually eliminating prep time. As with any produce, however, eating them raw is never completely risk-free, since it’s the heat of cooking that kills disease-causing bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella. Does that mean you shouldn’t enjoy their convenience? We vote to keep them in your basket.
Foodborne-illness outbreaks caused by produce have been increasing—and lettuce is the vegetable most frequently named, including pre-washed, bagged types. However, “there is no evidence to suggest that washing lettuce or any produce in your own kitchen is any safer than buying it already prewashed,” says Stephen Swanson, M.D., an epidemic intelligence service officer with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The risk of pathogens, he adds, “may even be smaller.”
Why? Bagged precut vegetables are washed multiple times in chlorinated water to kill pathogens. Such a washing is often more thorough than the quick rinse typical of your average household kitchen, notes Swanson. “Cross-contamination, where bacteria are transferred from one food to another during food preparation, can also occur in home kitchens.” (Washing the sink, cutting boards, utensils, countertops and your hands with hot soapy water between handling different foods can help prevent this, as well as keeping raw meat and poultry separate from fresh produce; more tips at www.foodsafety.gov.)
We believe the many benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables far outweigh the minimal risk of exposure to foodborne pathogens, and so does Swanson. “A diet high in fresh fruits and vegetables is vital to a healthy lifestyle,” he says. “Eat and enjoy the health benefits of fresh produce, whether it’s ready to eat out of the bag, or prepared in your own kitchen.”