While eating fruits and vegetables is an important part of maintaining a healthy and balanced diet, it is also important to know how to safely handle and prepare your produce, says Rachel Luckett, Extension specialist-nutrition for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Taking the correct steps to handle fruits and vegetables is essential in maximizing their nutritional benefits and preventing foodborne illness.
“According to the current dietary guidelines published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Americans should make half of their dinner plate fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Plant foods are a great source of energy, nutrients, vitamins and dietary fiber, and their consumption can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and obesity.”
While it is important to include store or market-bought produce as part of a balanced diet, care should be taken in its handling and sanitation before consumption. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, harmful bacteria that may be in the soil or water where produce grows can come in contact with fruits and vegetables and contaminate them. Fresh produce may become contaminated after it is harvested, during storage or handling.
Luckett said eating contaminated food sometimes leads to foodborne illness, which is often referred to as “food poisoning.” To avoid the risk of contracting an illness, as well as enjoy the greatest health benefits of fresh fruits and vegetables, Arkansans can follow a few simple steps before serving fruits and vegetables with dinner.
“Whether you shop at a grocery store or farmers market, it’s always important to wash raw fruits and vegetables under cool, running water,” Luckett said. “This removes any soil, sand or pesticide residues that may be present. A vegetable brush can help remove any stubborn dirt from crevices.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does not recommend the use of soap, detergent or commercial produce washes.
“Even if you do not plan to eat the skin, you should still wash produce first so bacteria are not transferred during peeling or cutting,” Luckett said. “After the produce is washed, dry it with a cloth or paper towel to minimize any bacteria that may still be present on the surface.”
Fruits and vegetables should not be soaked in water. Soaking can cause important, water-soluble nutrients to be leached out of the produce and might even dilute its flavor.
“Arkansans should serve raw or cooked vegetables as soon as possible to ensure the best flavor, appearance and nutritional value,” Luckett said. “Raw vegetables taste best and are most nutritious when served cold.”
Luckett said most vegetables can be kept fresh in a refrigerator – either in the crisper or in plastic bags – for at least a few days. Sweet corn in husks and tomatoes should be kept uncovered.
Potatoes, hard-rind squash, eggplant and sweet potatoes should be kept at room temperature in a location that is cool, dark and dry. Potatoes stored at room temperature should be used within a week, as they will start to sprout and shrivel. If potatoes that have been exposed to light start to turn green and develop a bitter flavor, simply cut away the green portions before cooking them.
“By following a few simple steps when handling, preparing and storing produce, Arkansans can get the most value out of their fruits and vegetables with no health risks,” Luckett said.