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Hey, Uh, Do You Rinse Your Lemons?

A very divisive issue.

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It has recently come to my attention that some people do a completely absurd thing: They rinse lemons before using them. Not just if they’re going to put a slice in a drink, but even if they’re just going to use little juice for, say, a salad dressing.

A quick poll of friends and coworkers revealed that people are bitterly divided on this issue. Those who rinse think it’s disgusting that people wouldn’t rinse, and the non-rinsers think it’s a big waste of time.

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Well, when life hands me a debate about lemons, I make some phone calls and fix myself a tall glass of sweet, refreshing journalism lemonade.

First, I spoke to Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety, an organization that advocates a variety of agricultural issues, like trying to keep genetically modified apples out of supermarkets and encouraging popcorn producers to use bee-friendly pesticides.

“Yes, lemons definitely should be washed,” Hanson told me. His reasoning was that the rind is chock-full of pesticides that could transfer to the lemon while cutting, or transfer onto your hands while you touch the rind. “In addition to having pesticides on them, they also have antibiotics on them,” Hanson continued. “Most people don’t realize this. The EPA granted emergency use of antibiotics on citrus crops to prevent citrus greening.” Citrus greening is a bacterial disease passed along by bugs that has been plaguing US citrus crops in the last few years.

Hanson admits that the amount of pesticides on a lemon isn’t exactly deadly. “Are you going to die from it? Not unless you’re allergic to the antibiotics.”

Hmm. I know plenty of people who are allergic to antibiotics, and I’ve never heard of anyone having a reaction from eating fruit. If this sounds perhaps a little alarmist, you’re not the only one thinking that.

Jim Adaskaveg is a professor of plant pathology at the University of California, Riverside, who specifically studies post-harvest fruit problems and sanitizing fruit. His career is basically dedicated to whether or not you should rinse a lemon.

To understand if you should rinse a lemon, you first have to understand what rinsing would actually accomplish. Are you really washing off those pesticides and antibiotics? Nope! “Most lemons in a supermarket are processed and treated and ready to be consumed,” Adaskaveg explained. Fruit is washed at a processing plant between the field and the supermarket. After lemons are washed, they’re treated with a wax and a safe fungicide to keep them from getting moldy.

And the wax means that any trace amount of pesticide residue is not really getting washed off anyway – at least not by a few seconds of rinsing.

However, Adaskaveg still is in favor of rinsing. The reason? Germs from whoever touched them at the grocery store: the manager who set up the display, or a customer who test-squeezed a few. Or even you when you touched them before washing your hands. “The pesticides aren’t really dangerous, even though people think they are,” he said. “The risk of any poisoning is astronomically low compared to germs from handling.”

So there you go. Whether you believe the food safety guy or the fruit packing professor about the dangers of potential pesticide residue, they still agree that a rinse is worth it. Most of all, this is terrible news for me, since it means my husband was right. Goddamnit.

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