Whether you're buying organic or not, it's important to clean those fruits and veggies for your protection.

In light of the annual "Dirty Dozen" list's recent release, many consumers are alarmed by just what might be lurking on the surface of our fruits and vegetables, and rightfully so. According to the Food and Drug Administration, produce can be contaminated by animals or harmful substances in the soil or water during production, poor hygiene practices by producers and distributors, and improper washing and storage techniques by consumers.

While buying organic is a great option to limit contamination for food safety, that doesn't mean we should avoid conventional produce from the grocery store–especially if that's the only way fresh produce fits into our budget. Either way, both conventional and organic produce are safe, nutritious options, and both could use some washing before consumption! With our tips for properly washing produce, you can feel good about enjoying clean, fresh food, regardless of how it's grown.

Which Fruits and Vegetables Need to Be Washed?

All of them! (With the exception of pre-cut and ready to eat veggies.) Whether or not you consume the peel of a fruit or veggie, dirt, bacteria and pesticide residues can be transferred when you cut through the skin. For example, a recent report by the FDA found almost 20 percent of the avocado peels sampled contained Listeria monocytogenes. While only a small fraction of the avocado flesh samples were contaminated, it's worth taking the time to wash all your produce to be safe.

Bacteria can find its way onto your knife, cutting board or even the flesh of the fruit or vegetable if it hasn't been cleaned properly. And at the very least, washing a fruit or vegetable gets rid of any unwanted dirt left over from production–and who wants to eat a gritty apple?

When Is the Best Time to Wash Fresh Produce?

Ideally, washing your produce when you get back from shopping is the best time, as you can get it out of the way and ensure as little contamination as possible. However, it's hard enough to find time to grocery shop, and you can certainly wait until you need a specific item to wash it.

Some produce is more delicate and will keep longer if you wait to wash it right before you eat it. Berries, cherries, and grapes all do best treated this way.

How to Wash Most Produce

Clean produce begins with clean hands, and the FDA recommends washing yours for at least 20 seconds with soap and warm water before getting to the produce (you should wash your hands before handling any food, right?). From there, rinse your produce under plain running water-no soap or formulated wash required–and gently rub the surface, skin or peel. One three-year study by Connecticut's Department of Consumer Protection and Agricultural Experiment Station found that the mechanical action of rinsing and rubbing the produce removed pesticide residues just as effectively as both soap and fruit and vegetable washes. So there's no need to purchase extra products, though if using a special wash makes you feel better, go for it.

After this initial step, firm produce, such as melons and potatoes, could use an extra scrub from a clean vegetable brush to get off any remaining stuck–on filth before drying. Drying is the final part of the washing process, as using a clean cloth or paper towel can help remove any lingering bacteria and helps delay spoiling as well.

strawberries on cutting board

How to Wash Berries

As we mentioned earlier, berries are delicate, and rubbing them can make them lose their plump texture. Just before serving, rinse berries in a clean colander, lay them on a cloth or paper towel-lined plate, then gently pat them dry.

How to Wash Leafy Greens

Leafy greens are a bit more involved when it comes to washing, and rightfully so, as romaine has caused many foodborne illnesses. For food preparation, the FDA advises first removing the outermost layers of a head of cabbage or lettuce, as they have likely experienced the most contamination. From there, we advise separating all the remaining leaves and placing them into a cold water bath for a few minutes, occasionally swirling the leaves with your hands to shake off any excess dirt or debris.

Once all your leafy greens are squeaky clean, use your salad spinner to dry them, which helps preserve their texture. If you don't have a salad spinner, you can also place a few of your leaves at a time on a cloth or paper towel-lined plate and pat them dry with more towels. This is the best cleaning method for fresh herbs as well.

Bottom Line

Washing your produce gets rid of extra dirt, bacteria and pesticide residues and can help keep you healthy. And even if you're peeling your fruits and veggies, it's important to still give them a wash before you cut into the skin and introduce substances from the outside into the inside that you eat.