Cleaning the Dirty Dozen

The Environmental Working Group’s 2018 list of the twelve most pesticide-laden foods is (dirtiest first) strawberries, spinach, nectarines, apples, peaches, pears, cherries, grapes, celery, tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, and potatoes. They say when you eat fruits and vegetables don’t eat these. As many as 22 different pesticides have been found on strawberries alone.

There is a better way from a study by author Lili He, Ph.D., assistant professor of food science at the University of Massachusetts. Most pesticides are sensitive to high alkaline environments, like baking soda. Soaking your produce in a 1% solution of calcium bicarbonate in water for 15 minutes will neutralize up to 96% of pesticides on your edibles. The chemicals will not be gone unless you scrub the skin, crevasses, and leaves as briskly as you can, but they will be denatured into more harmless constituents.

The math on 1% solution is about 1 teaspoon to 2 cups of water, eight teaspoons to the gallon, the average kitchen sink is about 15 gallons, so 90 teaspoons to the sink full of water (allow some for the produce), and you will need almost 16 ounces of baking soda. The medium size box in my kitchen is 14 ounces and I have a rather small sink. So, I could be safe using half a box in my 7-gallon sink. You will want to rinse the produce when done soaking. If you’re being really stringent against chemicals then you’ll need to rinse in purified water because tap water┬áis not clean. Dry it off if it’s going into the fridge.

It is true that some pesticides penetrate into some fruits and vegetables and you will never get these out. If peeling is an option then that action will help a great deal. In He’s study, one pesticide got down to 80 micrometers in an apple, about the thickness of a small hair. But in peeling you’re into the gray area where vitamin loss is an issue.

The liquid of our baking soda bath will penetrate to some depth in the fruit or vegetable to denature at least some if not all of the pesticides it encounters. However, we attempt to undo months of pesticide exposure in a 15-minute wash. Unfortunately, there are not comprehensive studies looking at the complexities of the depth of penetration, time to denature, and exactly what species of chemicals remain behind when pesticides get denatured.

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