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A number of (chiefly British) recipes specify unwaxed lemons for zesting. Unwaxed citrus fruit are not widely available here in Sweden, so I have to make do by attempting to remove the wax before zesting. Recently I have had doubts regarding the extent to which I actually succeed in doing so, and now I wonder whether it is even worth the trouble.

Citrus fruit have a natural wax coating that is washed off along with orchard grime at the packing house. A new protective coating is applied before packing, and it is this that I am concerned about.

I have two concerns. First there is a food safety issue. Reading the FDA and EU food additive regulations, I see that some substances are permitted for citrus and fruit such as apples and pears where the peel is normally eaten. Other substances are only to be used on citrus or other fruit where the peel is not normally ingested. On the face of it this seems to suggest that the consumption of citrus peel has not been taken into account. I understand that this may not be the case, but since neither regulatory body clarify the issue (at least not in the linked documents), I feel my concern is warranted.

My second concern is regarding whether the taste of the peel is compromised by the coating. This is a tricky question for me to answer since I have no access to untreated citrus. There is the additional difficulty that there are so many substances permitted, and the supermarkets here give no indication of what is used. Presumably some types of coating taste better and others worse. I include this part of question with the faint hope that there may be someone reading who is not subject to the same limitations.

Is it worth bothering even trying to wash the wax of citrus?

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Lemons in Germany are always labeled as "untreated" or "treated with X". I guess you could look up the various X-es, but I just assume that all of the treated ones are unfit for peel consumption. If lemons in Sweden are not labeled that way, buy certified organic lemons for the peel - they cannot be treated with chemicals. This should take care of the food safety issue. Of course, "normal" (bee) wax is not considered a dangerous treatment, so it may be present on organic lemons (maybe even untreated - I don't know all label requirements) and still present a taste issue. –  rumtscho Mar 2 '13 at 21:59
    
Also see this related question on the Skeptics Q/A site. –  Chris Steinbach Mar 3 '13 at 14:46
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@rumtscho Thanks for your comment. It simplifies my question enormously if I restrict it to organic products. There are only two types of wax allowed on organic citrus here in Sweden: bee wax and carnauba wax. I double checked to see whether the supermarkets note treatments. Five out of five supermarket chains do not. Some had the boxes used for packing lying around which did have labels sometimes marked "treated with Imazalil", "covered with natural waxes", or simply "wax coated". –  Chris Steinbach Mar 4 '13 at 18:49
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I've edited your title to try to encourage more on-topic answers; especially with longer questions, a lot of people mostly just read the title. –  Jefromi Mar 4 '13 at 19:12
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I've always just used warm (not hot) water, dish soap, and a soft brush to de-wax before zesting, and I've always been happy with the results. However, this question made me curious; in addition to beeswax, apparently carnauba (familiar from the carwash) and shellac are allowed - and warm water + dish soap would probably not adequately remove either of those. So if the packer didn't indicate what was used, then - assuming you have choices! - I think I would buy one or two fruit from each box , take them home to experiment, and then come back for more of whichever one cleaned up best. –  MT_Head Mar 5 '13 at 3:39

5 Answers 5

I recently did some experimenting on this exact topic. I can't contribute anything to the safety part of your question, but I have some notes regarding flavor.

The experiment: I blind tasted lemon zest in a group of associates and friends with varying degrees of palette development. Most people were able to differentiate between fresh zest with wax and fresh zest without. Nobody could tell the difference once we'd incorporated the zest into a dish, probably since the wax reflows and becomes very diluted. The experiment didn't eliminate every possible variable or control for every factor, but I thought I'd pass this along in case it's useful to you.

In my personal experience - when I compare waxed and unwaxed citrus side by side - the taste of fresh zest is slightly bittered by the presence of wax. Mouthfeel is appreciably gummier and I find it harder to perceive the zest's moisture as well.

If enough of us perform this experiment we could cobble together our own unofficial data :) I'd be more than happy to crunch the stats.

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Great answer and nice idea re. the collective experiment. I've been considering purchasing the different organic waxes online and taste-testing them alone. I'll post the results here somewhere if I get around to it. –  Chris Steinbach Mar 14 '13 at 18:52
    
Excellent! Looking forward to it. I'll post the specifics for the tasting I did also. –  Noah C Mar 15 '13 at 6:35

Is the wax safe?

Coatings used on fruits and vegetables must meet FDA food additive regulations for safety. [ US Food & Drug Administration: http://www.fda.gov/food/resourcesforyou/consumers/ucm114299 ]

In the States, at least, it appears that fruit wax is regulated. Now, that doesn't mean it's healthy (cigarettes and gasoline are also regulated), but it should be a decent voucher of safety.

Of course, history shows that the government doesn't always know best... but I don't personally expect a large scale beeswax-related cancer epidemic to start sweeping across the Fruit Salad enthusiast scene.

Can wax be removed?

Waxes generally cannot be removed by regular washing. If consumers prefer not to consume waxes--even though the waxes are safe--they can buy un-waxed commodities or can peel the fruit or vegetable, thereby removing any coating. [ Rainier Fruit Company: http://www.rainierfruit.com/products/wax.html ]

Fruit companies seem to say nay.

Is it worth bothering to try to remove the wax?

In the end, we are talking about spending energy worrying about a drop of wax. I wager that one Taco Bell taco is worse for you than all of the fruit wax (man-made or otherwise) you will consume in a year.

Nutrition is often a matter of degrees. You have to pick your battles.

As far as flavor goes... the fruit guys seem to say no. But of course they would say that.

I haven't found any conclusive source that claims otherwise.

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Apart from anything else, it is really hard to grate waxed lemons. I think the processors wax fruit to enhance its appearance and to increase sales, which makes sense, as sales are their raison d'etre. I have read great chefs who resent the wax and seek out unwaxed fruit. Charmayne

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the main reason we want a non treated citrus is that the chemical (used for growth, prevent bugs eating the fruit, ...) alter the taste of the skin wich we use to make zest, I don't think that "unwax" the fruit can allow you to extract some zests, since we just want the yellow part (and avoid the underneath blank part that is bitter). I haven't seen any method here in France of waxed citrus so i don't really know what it looks, but it seems not to worth the challenge...

You may want to try some alternative of zesting citrus, the advantage of zest is mainly that it provide a really strong taste of the fruit (and may had some texturing depending the zest size), you can eventually try to use the juice to get the fruit taste even it's not really the same...

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Citrus zest contains oils that are not present in the juice or the pulp, and it's impossible to get the full "brightness" of the citrus flavor without those oils. –  MT_Head Mar 5 '13 at 3:29

It definitely is worth removing anything coating fruit, why would anyone want to eat the packaging? After all this is why they sell unwaxed citrus fruit. Removing the wax would also remove anything sealed underneath, such as pesticide residue.

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The question is about whether there are food safety or flavor gains to be had from removing the wax, not so much how to remove it. Saying that it's the packaging doesn't really answer the question - not all packaging is dangerous or bad-tasting. –  Jefromi Mar 4 '13 at 19:09
    
I believe that there are gains for both safety (as in removing the unknown - who knows what might be sealed under the wax), and flavour (as in removing the unwanted) by removing it. I don't have hard evidence, but why take the risk? –  antonyh Mar 4 '13 at 20:35

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