Eating hydroponic vegetables or produce without washing them sounds harmless. However, is it really a good idea? Let me share with you what I discovered.
Despite hydroponic vegetables being arguably cleaner than soil-grown ones, they still need to be washed.
Apart from health and sanitation concerns, washed vegetables are better for cuisine and simply taste better. The question is, what is the best way to clean vegetables?
Any kind of vegetable or produce whether grown hydroponically or through soil must be washed before use. Washing vegetables under running water rinses pathogens, dirt, and pests off the surface of the vegetable for better cooking or consumption.
As with anything prepared for cooking or consumption, a certain level of care is needed to ensure their quality and safety. Pathogens (disease-causing organisms) are present everywhere and must be eliminated to ensure that they do not contaminate the food.
Cleanliness is not only for the vegetables but also for the person holding them or their kitchen utensils. pathogens may spread to a person’s hands, knives, chopping boards, and other vegetables as well.
The U.S. FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) has several tips when preparing vegetables to prevent foodborne illnesses. The small steps can contribute to a cleaner and more flavorful meal.
Unwashed hands can contaminate vegetables with unwanted pathogens and dirt that may cause food illnesses.
Soap acts as an emulsifying agent that suspends oil and dirt from the skin and into the soapy water. Washing with lukewarm or warm water is best since it helps in killing pathogens and bacteria.
If damage or bruising occurs before eating or handling vegetables, inspect and cut away the damaged or bruised areas.
Damaged or bruised areas in vegetables may be indicative of decay, plant disease, or insect infestation. Though cutting them off may seem like a waste, it is safer to do so. The exception is in case the bruises or holes are caused by insects. It is safe to eat vegetables with holes.
Carrots, potatoes, beets, parsnips, and other vegetables that need peeling must be rinsed before they are put under the knife. If not, dirt and pathogens may contaminate the knife or the peeler and contaminate other vegetables they are used on.
Apart from rinsing the vegetables, rinsing and drying kitchen equipment after use is also recommended to maintain sterility and prevent rusting.
Vegetables with many creases need thorough rubbing under running water to make sure accumulated dirt and pathogens are washed out. Pests may also stay hidden in between such creases and running water will flush them out.
Running water is more than enough to do the job. Soap, vinegar, and other cleaning agents are no longer necessary and may even affect the taste and quality of the vegetables.
Firm vegetables such as cabbages or carrots may need a firm scrubbing with a vegetable brush. A thorough scrub under running water will make sure dirt and pathogens are removed from the surface of the vegetable.
Note: A vegetable brush is a simple device that looks like an ordinary brush. Make sure that the vegetable brush is properly marked so that it’s not mistaken for a shoe brush or worse
Drying the vegetable using a clean cloth or a paper towel will further reduce the number of pathogens or dirt present. Wiping off the excess moisture also removes the pathogens or bacteria suspended in them.
Furthermore, excess moisture can be the site of fungal infestation. It is important to wipe and dry off excess moisture if the unwashed vegetables are not used and stored in the fridge.
Hydroponic vegetables whether bought in a grocery or harvested at home must still be washed. Despite their sterile and clean growing environment, pathogens, dirt, and pests may still be present on the surface before or after harvesting.
However, hydroponic vegetables have some benefits compared to soil-grown vegetables which make hydroponics arguably cleaner.
Hydroponics vegetables are grown under controlled conditions, often indoors. Hence, applying chemical pesticides to its leaves and body is not necessary. This removes the need for a more thorough wash to remove chemical pesticide residue.
Chemical pesticides are often a mainstay for traditional soil cultivation because the outdoor environment makes the plants vulnerable to pests and the elements. This problem is negated or mitigated by how hydroponic techniques are often indoors.
Nutrients used for hydroponics are incorporated directly into the nutrient reservoir that is in direct contact with the roots of the plants. Due to this, no traces of chemical fertilizers can be found on the surface of the leaves and bodies of the plants.
The unique method of nutrient delivery found in hydroponics makes sure that only the roots are ever in contact with the nutrients. The fruits, flowers, stems, leaves, or any other edible portion of the plant is left untouched. Even if the roots are the only portion in contact with nutrients, hydroponic roots are healthy, white, and clean.
Soil hosts pathogens and pests that can cause foodborne illnesses. The absence of soil means that the introduction of pathogens, pests, and dirt are extremely slim, resulting in hydroponic vegetables being cleaner than their traditional counterpart.
Soil pathogens include but are not limited to, E. coli (gastrointestinal disease), Legionella spp. (Legionnaires’ Disease), Mycobacterium leprae (leprosy), roundworms, and hookworms, among others.
Soil pests come in the form of fungus gnats, aphids, mealybugs, and scales, among others.
Hydroponic vegetables are often grown indoors and under controlled conditions which directly mitigates or even negates the external introduction of pathogens, pests, or dirt.
Hydroponic systems work best indoors – from an adequately-sized room to a large greenhouse. Due to this enclosed space, external elements such as the wind and rain that carry pathogens and dirt are unlikely to enter.
Wipe off excess moisture on washed yet unused vegetables and allow them to dry before placing them back in refrigeration. Removing excess moisture prevents pathogens from forming on the surface of the vegetable.
We probably had that moment where we’ve prepared too many vegetables than what’s needed for dinner. These washed yet unused vegetables are still perfectly fine for preparation and consumption later on.
Wiping and drying them off prevents pathogens and pests from growing on the moisture spots. Even under the cold temperatures of a refrigerator, pathogen growth still occurs albeit extremely slow.
Hydroponic farmers “flush” their systems before harvesting by draining the reservoir and “flushing” with plain water for a set period to remove excess nutrients like mineral salts. This improves the taste of the vegetables by removing excess nutrient buildup in the plant itself.
While not necessarily required, depriving the plants of excess nutrients is known to improve the taste and quality of the harvest. The produce has a milder taste that does not have the harshness associated with the harvest filled with excess nutrients.
Washing is necessary for vegetables whether they are store-bought or harvested at home. Washing also applies whether the vegetables are soil-grown or grown hydroponically.
It is important to wash your hands before touching vegetables, cut damaged or bruised vegetable parts, and rinse the vegetables before cutting or peeling. This reduces the transfer of pathogens, dirt, or pests from the hand, utensils, or vegetables.
Hydroponic vegetables are arguably cleaner compared to soil-grown vegetables because of the lack of 1) chemical pesticides, 2) chemical fertilizers, and 3) soil, because 4) they are grown under controlled, indoor conditions.
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- “7 Tips for Cleaning Fruits, Vegetables” by n/a in U.S. FDA
- “COMMON HOUSEPLANT INSECTS & RELATED PESTS” by Janet McLeod Scott in Home & Garden Information Center, Clemson University
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- “How to Flush Hydroponics” by Cindy Quarters in SF Gate
- “How To Flush Your Plants For Maximum Potency And Yields” by The Advanced Nutrients Team in Advanced Nutrients
- “Plant Pathogenic Fungi” by Doehlemann et al in Microbiology Spectrum 5(1)
- “Refrigeration and Food Safety” by n/a in U.S. FDA
- “Soil pathogens that may potentially cause pandemics, including severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) coronaviruses” by Steffan et al in Curr Opin Environ Sci Health. 2020 Oct; 17: 35–40