Never, Ever Ask For A Lemon Slice In Your Cocktail Again

Back away from the lemons and limes

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If you frequent dive bar happy hours, then you know it takes a lot of lemons and limes to make a $5 well cocktail drinkable. As it turns out, those citrusy wedges might be contaminating your beverage with all kinds of bacteria you never knew existed.

According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers found nearly 70 percent of lemon slices sampled from 21 different restaurants had some degree of microbial growth. The researchers found that all of the microbes discovered on the lemon slices had “the potential to cause infectious diseases at various body sites.”

But that study was published in 2007, which makes it pretty dated in the rapidly changing restaurant industry. Which is why ELLE reached out to author and clinical microbiology professor Philip Tierno, PhD, in an effort to get to the bottom of this dirty lemon mystery. Tierno told ELLE that in every case he’s tested citrus wedges for microbial growth, he and his team have “always comes up with evidence of contamination from the skin, respiratory secretions, and fecal matter.” Gross.

Though the issue goes far beyond unsettling your stomach. According to Tierno, pathogens such as E. coli, enterococcus, staphylococcus, and the norovirus have been found on citrus skins. So, how do these potentially fatal germs get on our fruits and ultimately in our drinks?

Tierno explains it to ELLE this way:

“People are touching the lemon in your glass, handling it, cutting it, placing it in a container or a cup, or a glass; 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. You can easily see how those lemon slices and lemon wedges can be contaminated.”

Throw bad or non-existent hand-washing practices into the mix and you’ve got a cesspool of bacteria just waiting to flavor your gin and tonic. Think about it, how often do you really wash your citrus fruits before eating or juicing them at home? According to the FDA, this is a big mistake as you’re not only increasing your chances of getting a food-borne illness, but ingesting pesticides as well.

That being said, Tierno doesn’t necessarily suggest you do away with citrusy garnishes altogether. “Pay attention,” he says, and take note whether your bartender uses a clean cloth or a filthy rag to wipe your glass—that’s a dead giveaway cleanliness isn’t his or her top priority.

And if you’re a real germaphobe, you always have the option of mixing yourself a margarita with freshly washed, organic lemons and limes at home. Then again, sometimes it’s exhilarating to live on the wild side.


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