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Budding Business: Items That Clean the Wax Off Your Produce

July 25, 1990

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) _ The typical cucumber is so caked with wax you could add a wick and almost call it a candle.

But it’s waxed foods that catch the eye of even the savviest shopper who will meticulously pick through produce for that picture-pretty item, leaving the duller - but perhaps healthier - alternative behind.

The wax itself isn’t harmful. What concerns people are pesticides and fungicides found in the wax.

Some businesses have capitalized on this fear, developing scrub products they claim will remove waxes and other chemicals from the surface of fruits and vegetables.

″I was cleaning my produce at the kitchen sink using water when it dawned on me that if I’m going to invest my time washing, I should at least be doing a thorough job,″ said Steve Abo, president of a Los Angeles company that markets a produce wash in spray bottles.

Many consumers know that apples, like cucumbers, get much of their luster from wax. What they may not realize is how many fresh produce items are coated with wax - oranges, grapefruits, avocados, bananas, beets, watermelons, pineapples, eggplants, peaches, peppers, squash, garlic, onion, potatoes, tomatoes and turnips.

Even if there is no sheen, a fruit or vegetable could still be covered. Wax is now applied in such a thin film that it’s hard to tell just by looking. About 10,000 apples can be coated with a single ounce.

The wax replaces natural coatings removed by scrubs and detergent washes between picking and packing. It keeps food from losing moisture and spoiling.

What’s troubling is that fungicides - some considered possible causes of cancer - are encased in the wax, said Beth Kaufman of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.

″Consumers look for the prettiest vegetable or fruit, which is usually waxed,″ Kaufman said. ″Consumers have to let producers know they’re more concerned about the food than just how it looks.″

Abo, who grew up on avocado and lemon farms in California and Arizona, said his product removes chemicals that don’t wash off with water alone. He won’t disclose what’s in his spray, except to say the ingredients are non-toxic.

Another company, Bio Scrub Industries near Albany, N.Y., is planning to market a ″veggy fruit scrub brush″ which claims to remove surface wax, soil, chemicals and pesticides.

The product is a soft-bristle brush that emits a liquid containing purified water and cleaning agents. It will be sold through mail-order catalogs and cost $8.45 per three-pack, said company president Mark Sterman.

Consumer groups are skeptical. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, for example, said the ingredients in these washes look suspiciously like those in ordinary dishwashing detergent.

″We’re not convinced that specialty scrubs are any better than plain old detergent, and they can cost up to eight times more,″ said Lisa Lefferts, a staff scientist at the center.

Lefferts questioned whether these products will even remove wax, as many claim.

Abo, a biochemist, said he understands the center’s position.

″I think their angle is that there’s a lot of entrepreneurs putting detergent in bottles, diluting it and selling it,″ he said.

The Food and Drug Administration says fungicides approved for use with waxes are safe within certain limits.

But among those approved by the FDA is Benomyl, considered a possible carcinogen in humans. Also included is ortho-phenylphenol, an immune-system suppressant, and sodium ortho-phenyl phenate, another possible carcinogen.

Food-coloring agents may be added, a common practice for Florida oranges which are often picked green. Some waxes are made with animal lard.

Critics question the safety of fungicides, particularly in combination with wax, which keeps them bound to food.

″While there is no reason to believe that waxes pose a health risk to humans, there is reason to be concerned about the pesticides that are often mixed with waxes. A number of fungicides that are added to waxes have been shown to cause increased risk of some diseases, including cancer,″ says ″The Wax Cover-Up,″ a report issued this spring by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

For more than 50 years, federal law has required that shipping cartons and store labels disclose when wax is used. Another federal law adopted in the 1950s also requires disclosure of post-harvest pesticides.

Critics say these laws aren’t strictly followed and in some cases are ignored, because the federal government relies on state inspectors to enforce them. But some states are enacting their own tough labeling laws.

Maine requires food retailers to post signs informing consumers that its produce may have been treated with chemicals. The New Hampshire legislature has passed a bill requiring labeling of produce coated with wax. Similar legislation is pending in Illinois, Tennessee and New York.

Efforts for tighter enforcement have upset growers, however. The United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, for example, said labeling waxed produce is nearly impossible.

The group said different shipments of the same item, which may be coated with different wax ingredients, are often mixed together on supermarket shelves. The association, which represents producers nationwide, said keeping the differently treated items separate is difficult.

Health experts say consumers should scrub produce to remove residues and coatings. The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association recommends using a vegetable brush, hot water and detergent.

Removing the peel will reduce exposure to wax and fungicide coatings. But it’s a tradeoff since the peel contains fiber which may help reduce the risk of cancer.

Health experts say organic fruits and vegetables are grown and treated without the use of synthetic chemicals and wax coatings are not applied.

End Advance for Wednesday July 25

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