What good is a fruity cocktail on a Friday night if it doesn’t have a cute little lemon wedge or orange slice stuck onto the rim of the fancy glass? Well, you might just have to learn to live without it, because scientists are suggesting that you might not be able to live with it.
According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health in 2007, nearly 70 percent of the fruit pieces found in many common alcoholic drinks contained some variety of “microbial growth.” In layman’s terms, that’s super gross.
Most of us don’t give a single thought to these tasty garnishes that brighten up our nights out. When you do think about it, though, you’ll start to realize all the many ways in which they could become contaminated before coming into contact with the liquid that goes into your mouth. And no, unfortunately the alcohol content of a drink will not save you.
Anne LaGrange Loving and John Perz, the authors of the research paper on the contamination of our citrus wedges, first noticed how often lemon juice is used as a kind of disinfectant. They noted how many (unscientific) websites claim that utensils can be sterilized with lemon juice. Spoiler alert: They can’t.
The two researchers then noted that water containing lemon juice had been shown to enhance the growth of at least one type of microbe. It made them wonder how clean these fruits really were at the moment they entered our drinks.
So they went out, ordered drinks from 21 different restaurants, and swabbed the lemon wedges that came in them. The results were certifiably nasty.
They found 25 distinct microbial species and discovered that 69.7% of the wedges not only had some kind of bacteria, virus, or yeast on them, but that it had developed into a “growth.” This means that they were not only contaminated, but the lemon juice definitely wasn’t stopping the microbes from reproducing.
Even worse, only 13% of the lemon wedges had microbial growth only on the rind. That means you can’t just order your lemon on the side and squeeze in the juice and hope to be completely safe. Most of them were contaminated in the lemon flesh as well. Yum.
But could you really get sick from the contamination in a lemon wedge?
“The microbes found on the lemon samples in our investigation all have the potential to cause infectious diseases at various body sites, although the likelihood was not determined in this study,” says the research paper.
So they’re not sure how likely you are to get sick from a restaurant lemon wedge, but it can definitely happen. Your citrus garnishes are just like any other food served to you.
Delish spoke to an expert on the results of this study. Philip Tierno Jr., PhD, is a professor of microbiology and pathology at New York University School of Medicine. He also wrote the book The Secret Life of Germs.
Philip explained exactly how lemon wedges could come to be so contaminated.
“People are touching the lemon in your glass, handling it, cutting it, placing it in a container or a cup, or a glass,” he explained, “and then picking up those slices at a later point in time and dropping them into a drink and putting them on the rim of a glass.”
There is simply a lot of human handling that goes into these fruits before they hit your drink. They’re often kept in bowls full of fruit wedges, so who knows how many times they’ve been touched by the busy waitstaff?
And you may not want to hear this, but people aren’t as good about washing their hands as you’d like to think.
“Hand washing is one of the things that’s not practiced very well, especially after using bathroom facilities,” says Philip. “There are many major studies that prove that.”
While it is true that alcohol has germ-killing potential, you would only really be protected by a stiff glass of pure alcohol. Your 5% beer with an orange wedge? Forget it.
Plus, alcohol can’t kill viruses — only bacteria. Some of the worst illnesses come from viruses, like the ones that cause the stomach flu. You know — the flu that can turn a fun summer cruise into a floating nightmare.
Unless you absolutely must have that lime in your margarita, you’re better off skipping it. Or bringing your own fruit from home.
Or, if you want to take the risk, just keep on living your life like the daredevil you are.