That Lemon Slice in Your Cocktail Could Make You Sick

citrus water with mint
Adding lemon slices or ice to your drink may make you very, very sick. (Image: Sarsmis/iStock/GettyImages)

Heading to the bar? Adding a slice of lemon or a few cubes of ice to your cocktail might not harm your waistline, but it could seriously affect your health, according to an investigation conducted by Clemson University food scientists Paul Dawson and Wesam Al-Jeddawi.

In a study published on The Conversation, Dawson and Al-Jeddawi found that ice and drink garnishes used in many eating and drinking establishments are not only dirty, but also may be dangerous to our health. That’s because these items can carry dangerous bacteria and viruses that could make people very ill, thanks to poor food handling practices.

Researchers conducted experiments to figure out if hands contaminated with E. coli — you know, that nasty bacteria that can make you seriously sick with diarrhea, vomiting and cramps, and in more serious cases can cause kidney failure and even death — could transfer to lemon and ice. They found that if lemons were wet, the E. coli bacteria transferred “100 percent of the time.” Terrifying! The same happened with ice. If the lemons were dry, the bacteria only transferred 30 percent of the time, which is still very troubling.

This research correlates with a 2007 study finding that nearly 70 percent of lemon slices used to make drinks from 21 restaurants in a New Jersey city produced microbial growth.

Feeling sick yet?

According to researchers, ice is even more conducive to contamination than lemons. Dawson and Al-Jeddawi’s research concluded that more bacteria was transferred to ice from bacteria-covered hands than to lemons. Up to 67 percent of those living organisms transferred to the ice from bare hands, and even more — 83 percent — transferred from ice scoops.

You might be thinking: But what if I just grab my own lemon slices from the cup on the bar? Not so fast.

Dawson and Al-Jeddawi bring up a few good (but scary) points that the human who handled and sliced the citrus into little wedges could have contaminated hands. The cutting board or knife could be contaminated as well. Or that person who got to the jar of lemons before you could have placed their possibly contaminated claws in the glass of lemons, spreading bacteria all over the lemon slices. And then there’s the fact that you don’t exactly know how long said lemons have been sitting there. Researchers found that E. coli multiplies at an alarming rate — more than five times in a period of four to 24 hours.

And in case you were wondering if alcohol kills off the dangerous bacteria, it doesn’t look good. Dawson and Al-Jeddawi offer up findings from a previous study in which pathogens frozen in ice weren’t killed, even when melted in 80 to 86 proof concoctions of Scotch and soda or tequila. However, much less bacteria survived in pure Scotch or tequila drinks than in those mixed with soda.

As alarming as this study is, it’s a great reminder to make good choices about where you eat and drink. Most cases of contamination are linked back to food-service workers or whoever is doing food or drink prep work. All this means if you are drinking at a bar, pay attention to sanitation ratings, and if you are tailgating at a sports event or barbecue, make sure the unofficial bartender is washing his or her hands and making cleanliness a priority.

Or just save yourself the stress and stick to taking shots. Cheers!

What Do YOU Think?

Have you ever gotten sick with bacteria or a virus from your drink? Do you take precautions when drinking outside of your home? Does this new research scare you?

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