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Is it safe to wash food items with detergent?

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought about new hygiene practices, some of which were unsafe. An example is washing fruits and vegetables with detergents, which was debunked in 2020 by the Times of India

Recently, a TikTok video of a lady explaining why she washes her groundnut before eating was shared on Instagram by Instablog with the caption, “Lady reveals how she makes her groundnut hygienic for consumption.”

According to this lady, she takes the time to wash her groundnuts with detergent before eating them because of her experience with a groundnut seller. 

This video, as of Friday, Jan. 26, 2024, had 733,848 plays on Instagram, triggering different reactions with 4,911 comments and 5,175 shares. In the comment section, an Instagram user @Datedogeh08 wrote, “Soap can’t clean out completely, so she’s killing herself by taking chemicals from the groundnut.”

Another user, @Jancyskin, queried why she didn’t use salt and urged her to stop misleading people. “Why didn’t you use salt instead? Stop misleading people, Abeg.”

The question is whether this practice is hygienic, safe, or dangerous. Seeing the reach and engagement this video attracted, DUBAWA thought to clarify the facts and health issues around this.

Should food items be washed with detergent?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), fruits and vegetables should be cleaned under running water, whether you want to eat or cut them immediately. The centre warns against washing fruits and vegetables with soap, detergent, commercial produce wash, bleach solutions, or other disinfecting products.

The United States Department of Agriculture also warns against soaps and detergents for cleaning food items. 

A 2021 report by the Washington Post noted that washing vegetables and fruits with soap or detergent harms the fruit and those consuming it. This is because the produce may absorb the soap, or the consumer may not end up rinsing off all the residue.

An article by Mpasho, which highlighted that detergents often contain chemicals, fragrances, and other additives that are not intended for ingestion, noted that using soap or detergent on food items affects the taste, texture, and overall quality of the dish.

Jason Bolton, an extension professor and food safety specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, speaking with the Washington Post, said,

“Soap, in many cases, has a different chemistry from what the body should ingest. Soap can irritate your gastrointestinal system, leading to vomiting or diarrhoea. It could even interfere with friendly microbes in your gut.”

What, then, is the right way to clean food items?

While advocates of washing food items with detergents like the lady claim it helps to clean and disinfect them, Ben Chapman, a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University quoted by the Washinton Post, said cool running water could remove 90 to 99 per cent of unwanted pathogens on our produce. 

According to Healthline’s guide for cleaning vegetables and fruits, cool tap water is sufficient for cleaning. This guide noted that fresh produce should not be washed and kept but washed right before use. 

In its guide to raw peanuts, Hampton Farms noted that running these nuts under warm water two or three times and patting them dry is enough to clean them. 

Conclusion

While some food items like nuts and vegetables must be cleaned before use, experts noted that running them through cold or warm water is enough to clean such items. The use of detergents is harmful to both the food item and the consumer. 

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