Across all of social media, I keep encountering a certain brand of annoying influencer behaviour. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok — all are packed with videos that feature someone (usually a white woman) subjecting fruits and vegetables to an elaborate cleaning and repackaging process, supposedly immediately upon arriving home with them from the grocery store. Not only does it look time consuming and expensive — all those plastic containers aren’t cheap — but the extra effort is entirely unnecessary and, in most cases, will actually shorten the life of your produce.
I hate to pick on Kellie, but her video is a veritable guide to what not to do to your produce, and it’s representational of the practices I see promoted by influencers across the internet. Washing your produce well before you intend to eat it, tossing delicate berries into a salad spinner, and shaking an unspecified amount of baking soda all over everything: these are just a few things Kellie does that one should not, in fact, do.
Don’t wash produce until you need it
The moment you introduce your fruits and vegetables to water is the moment you start to encourage mould growth. So if you wash your fruits or vegetables the moment you get them home, you can shorten their lifespans significantly by giving mould and other microorganisms the moisture they crave. Luckily, the best practice is the laziest one: Don’t “pre-wash” or “prep” you produce. Wait.
If you don’t believe me, believe Dr. Don Schaffner, an extension specialist in food science and distinguished professor at Rutgers University. As Dr. Schaffner explained to us previously, you should hold off on washing your produce until you are ready to cook or eat it, then rinse it under cold running water:
If the item has a tough skin, you can use a brush. This rinsing should take place right before you eat the item, Schaffner specified. If you put freshly rinsed produce in the fridge, it’s more likely to get moldy, he said.
You may have read that strawberries are the exception to this rule, but they’re not. Strawberries are especially sponge-like, which makes them even more prone to mould growth if exposed to water, so keep them cold and dry until you’re ready for shortcake.
Washing produce with water is good enough
TikTok and the like will have you believe you need salt, baking soda, vinegar, or specialised cleaners to get your fruit fully clean, but you don’t need any of that. As we’ve covered previously, food safety experts do not recommend using commercial cleaners, vinegar, salt, or anything other than water when washing your fruits and vegetables. (I can’t begin to grasp the logic behind using baking soda for this purpose, but then, I’m not a TikTok influencer.)
According to Dr. Schaffner, there’s not much evidence to suggest vinegar will get your food cleaner. “My advice is to save the vinegar for oil-and-vinegar salad dressing,” he explained, adding that money spent on dedicated produce cleaners “would be better spent buying a little bit more fresh produce.” And, while salt water is used to check for fly larvae in berries, that is not something you need to do at home. (Lifehacker senior health editor Beth Skwarecki explains why here.)
When washing fruits and vegetables, removing dirt should be your goal. Washing away every last microbe is an unrealistic aim, and not a particularly worthy one. Running water, and a little scrubbing should you encounter a particularly dirty plant part, is all you need. (You should, however, get soap involved when washing your hands, which you should do before handling produce, or food of any kind.)
Don’t soak produce in the sink
Another common influencer practice is dumping everything into a sink full of water and vinegar, swishing it around, then draining the water away. And while the influencer will often make a big show of all the little bits and pieces they removed with all that swishing, letting produce hang out in a sink full of still water can be detrimental.
For starters, your sink is not particularly clean. According Dr. Charles Gerba, a microbiologist and professor at the University of Arizona in Tucson who is also known as Dr. Germ, your sink is disgusting. “There’s more E. coli in a kitchen sink than in a toilet after you flush it,” he told Food & Wine, “The sink is a great place for E. coli to live and grow since it’s wet and moist. Bacteria feed on the food that people put down the drain and what’s left on dishes in the sink.”
Cleaning your sink can obviously help cut down on the amount of bacteria hanging out in and around it, but an easier way to keep grody sink germs off of your apples is to wash them under running water, which carries dirt and grime away from your fruit and down the drain without potentially exposing it to any of the microbes that might be hanging out in your basin.
And again, there is the matter of moisture: The longer your fruit and vegetables soak, the longer they have to absorb water, and the sooner they are likely to grow mould.
Don’t wash berries in a salad spinner
I love my salad spinner, but it is the enemy of the raspberry. A salad spinner acts much like a centrifuge, slamming your produce against the sides of the basket and flinging water off in the process. This is fine for greens, or even mushrooms, but it will decimate a tender berry. A bruised fruit rots faster than a whole one, so avoid the salad spinner and dry your berries on paper towels.
Don’t store limes (or anything else) underwater
In the above video, Kellie washes a bunch of limes, then transfers them to jars and covers them with water. A similar hack for storing avocados made the rounds last year but, as Skwarecki has also explained, this is a bad idea. Submerging produce in water for days or weeks at a time may protect it from oxygen, but it can promote the growth of pathogens like Listeria and Salmonella, which can make their way into the flesh of the fruit:
After the avocado has spent a few days in the fridge, washing it is no longer likely to remove enough bacteria to keep it safe. FDA studies have found that when avocados are stored under water, bacteria from the skin can make their way into the edible flesh of the avocado, where it’s not possible to rinse or scrub them off.
Limes are not avocados, but water is water, and mould and bacteria love water, so keep your fruit in the (dry) produce drawer like a normal person. (I’ve never noticed limes to have a particularly short shelf life anyway, so I’m unclear as to why you would want to store them underwater to begin with.)
What’s with all of those containers?
Influencers love buying things like $US70 ($97) cups, plastic egg holders, and berry containers that are “designed” to prolong the life of your raspberries. I cannot comment on the efficacy of any of these products, but I’ve never had an issue with a conventional egg carton, and nearly all of the packaging your fruits and vegetables are sold in have already been designed to keep them as fresh as possible, as keeping produce looking good for long periods of time helps stores sell more produce. (Never underestimate the motivational powers of capitalism.)
It is possible that those dedicated berry holders absorb moisture and prolong the life of the berries a little bit longer but, in Kellie’s case, all they’re doing is absorbing the extra moisture she introduced by “prepping” her produce ahead of time, rendering the point somewhat moot. (I do like her bacon holder, however. Consider me influenced.)
Unless you’re goal is to make a loud “ASMR” video featuring clicking plastic and whooshing water, stick to the classics when cleaning fruits and vegetables: Remove any moldy or bruised fruits and vegetables from the herd, then store in the fridge until ready to use, preferably in their original packaging. When you’re ready to eat something, wash your hands with soap and water, then rinse the fruit or veg under cold running water — even if you plan on peeling it — and scrub firm produce with a clean produce brush. Dry on clean paper towels and cook or eat as usual.