How Bad Is It To Eat An Apple Without Washing It?

Will a quick rub on your shirt really do the trick?

September 9, 2016
woman eating apple
FSTOP IMAGES/CARL SMITH/GETTY

The situation: you're racing out the door and grab an apple for the road—hey, it's a good drive-thru deterrent when hunger hits. You just forgot one thing: to wash it. Oh, well, a quick buff with your shirt will have to do, you think, before you bite in. 

What you're worried about: It looks so clean and shiny, how dirty can it be, right? But lurking in the back of your mind are microscopic misgivings that you're about to pull a Snow White, biting into a toxic bastion of bacteria and pesticide residue that's sure to poison you with some not-so-happily-ever-after fate. 

Advertisement
Advertisement

The very worst thing that could happen: "Obviously the worst that could happen is it could have a pathogen on it that someone would eat and die," says Sandria Godwin, PhD, RD, LDN, a professor in the department of family and consumer sciences at Tennessee State University. "Someone with a compromised immune system could get a foodborne illness from eating one apple, while others might have to eat hundreds to get enough of a bacteria to harm them." 

Apples have a long journey from harvest to your home, and can come in contact with a lot of pathogens and potentially harmful microorganisms along the way. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than nine million people get sick every year from eating contaminated food, and fruits and vegetables account for 46 percent of those illnesses. Pathogens to watch out for, like E. coli, salmonella, listeria, and norovirus, can trigger everything from diarrhea and fever to kidney failure and urinary tract infection.

But pathogens aren't the only problem: "Apples that fall on the ground during harvesting may come into contact with animal feces," adds Davida Margolin, a lecturer in the department of molecular, cellular, and biomedical sciences at the University of New Hampshire. Apples also get a thumbs down from the Environmental Working Group, ranking as the second-worst produce in terms of pesticide residue on their "Dirty Dozen" list. 

Related: 14 Fruits And Veggies To Always Buy Organic

If pathogens, pesticides, and poop weren't enough, there's also your crisper:

crisper
Hannamariah/Shutterstock

 

Studies out of Tennessee State University found that vegetable drawers are the filthiest part of your fridge, a bounty of bacteria due to food spoilage running into the cracks and crevices of the drawer. And don't think organic apples are immune; their less-polished surface can actually add to the problem. "Organically grown apples may have more pits and tiny holes for insects, so the bacteria can move from the outside to the inside more easily," says Godwin. 

"The good news is I have not heard of anyone getting sick from bacteria on an apple," says Godwin. And it's not like apples are leafy greens, which win the top produce prize for causing the most foodborne illnesses. Plus, it looks like that on-the-go shirt buff is legit if you're in a pinch. Studies show that giving the fall fruit a once-over with a paper towel or your tee can lower bacteria counts by a lot—the cleaner the clothing, the better. And while it's true that washing produce is always the best policy both for pesticides and pathogens—"Correct washing includes rubbing the apple with the palms of both hands under running water," says Godwin—scrubbing that supermarket apple could be in vain if produce isn't processed properly before it hits store shelves. "If the mechanical washing is not done correctly, the wax may seal in any contaminating germs, so rinsing or washing the fruit will have little effect on the contaminating microbe," says Margolin. 

 

How do you like them apples? 

This article was originally published by our partners at Prevention.

Comments