Hundred-Year-Old Advice Recommends Washing Fruits and Vegetables


Sometimes, I am slightly taken aback by advice in hundred-year-old magazines. The October, 1916 issue of American Cookery gave an explanation of why fruits and vegetables should be washed. The advice was good, but I was amazed that it was considered somewhat controversial to wash fruits and vegetables:

Wash Your Food

The Pennsylvania Health Commissioner, Doctor Samuel L. Dixon, warns against eating raw food unless it is thoroughly washed.

“Care should be exercised in the preparation and serving of green foods, as they are subject to much handling between the garden and the table. Unless the hands through which they pass are absolutely clean they are more or less contaminated. Food exposed for sale in markets is also often subject to indiscriminate handling by prospective purchasers, and is seldom properly protected from dust and dirt.

As a protection, berries and foodstuffs eaten raw should be washed before being served. It is far better to risk a slight impairment of the flavor than to chance eating unclean foods”

43 thoughts on “Hundred-Year-Old Advice Recommends Washing Fruits and Vegetables

    1. I think that modern synthetic pesticides didn’t exist a hundred years ago, but that a few pesticides existed back then (for example, pyrethrum).

  1. Good advice even if it is old. 🙂 it is true that washing fruit removes some flavor… but then again it just maybe that if it’s homegrown and freshly picked ripe makes more of the difference. This I know that blueberries and peaches picked fresh off the tree,bush, are so good.. I don’t wash those before I eat it,while I pick I sample :)I’m sure it has a little Ga dirt on them but no chemicals.

    1. I agree – there’s nothing quite as wonderful as fresh-picked fruit. If I know that a bush or tree hasn’t been sprayed, I’ll definitely eat some unwashed fruit while picking it.

  2. I suspect the key is that “human handling” they mentioned. Germ theory’s pretty new, actually. Louis Pasteur was working around 1850, and Lister (“Listerine”!) didn’t bring germ theory to sanitation practices until somewhere around 1870. At the turn of the century, the thought that germs could be transmitted from person to person was new, and I suspect the advice was a way of getting that information to people.

    1. It’s amazing that germ theory and it’s relation to sanitation weren’t discovered until the latter half of the 19th century. Articles like this probably were a way to bring people up-to-speed on best practices.

    1. I also wonder if older people had different washing beliefs than younger people. Since knowledge of germs was still emerging in the early 20th century, I’m thinking that older people may have done things the way they always had, while the younger generation worried more about germs.

  3. This post is so interesting, as are the responses. It makes so much sense to emphasize the human handling of the product. Picking right off the vine would involve less of that, and my guess is it wouldn’t hurt us to eat a bit of organic dirt not polluted by poisonous chemicals.

        1. Maybe I’m not doing it right, but I just put raspberries in a strainer and jiggle them around while running water on them. With strawberries I actually hold a few in my hand and make sure I lightly rub water over the entire berry before coring it.

  4. I always wash any fruits and vegetables I eat, unless they have a removable skin, such as bananas and oranges. I guess they did it for different reasons 100 years ago?

    1. If I purchase a piece of fruit at a coffee shop, or somewhere else where I know that I won’t be able to wash it, I generally buy a banana or orange that I can peel rather than a apple.

  5. I’m always amazed when I read these pieces you post because we think we have come so far, but people knew their stuff 100 years ago. I wash my fruits and veggies as I go, washing only what I’m eating at that moment so the whole lot doesn’t go bad fast.

  6. It truly was a saving boon for humans when they discovered that good hygiene and cleanliness was the way to help protect against oodles of illnesses.

    Interesting and sound advice, thanks for posting.

  7. How interesting that they thought washing fruits and vegetables might impair the flavor. I always thought we washed produce to remove pesticides. But it seems germs were the concern then, as they are now.

    1. It does seem like the media often focuses more on pesticides than germs when educating about the need to wash fruits and vegetables- but when I think about it, it’s clear that both are important reasons.

    1. I generally wash fruits, but sometimes I make “exceptions.” For example, if I buy a whole apple at a coffee shop, I’ll eat it without washing it. I’ll justify it by thinking that it’s okay because I generally wash fruit, so it won’t hurt if I skip washing once in awhile–but that may not the best way to think about it.

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