Imagine the following scenario
It’s a warm spring evening and you settle down to a lovely alfresco meal at a fancy restaurant. Before distributing the menus, a waiter comes by with tall glasses of refreshing ice water and offers a dish of the freshly cut lemon wedge on the side. People around you start grabbing slices and squeezing the tart, sweet flavor into their water before dropping the piece of fruit in the glass. They sip and savor the lemony concoction thinking they’re doing their bodies some good with healthy hydration.
And lemon water is no doubt a healthful refreshment. It’s great for pH regulation and kidney health (thanks to its citric acid), and also a good source of vitamin C for immunity. But research published in the Journal of Environmental Health has shown that the seemingly health-conscious garnish can actually be loaded with gross bacteria. In one study, 76 lemons from more than 20 restaurants were swabbed to test for microbial growth, and a shocking 70% of them came back positive.
It’s no surprise actually, given how waitstaff is typically crunched for a time while serving multiple tables and thus may not find the time to wash their hands or put on a fresh pair of plastic gloves between every exchange. For this reason, lemon wedges and other drink garnishes can be teeming with germs, as well as raw meat or poultry contamination.
Another similar study found that 50% of the citrus lemon wedge from different restaurants were tainted with human fecal matter. A statistic like that should be enough to make any patron’s stomach turn. And specimens like E. coli, staphylococcus epidermidis, and candida (a vaginal fungus) were all uncovered via on-site research.
While employees are always instructed that they must wash their hands after using the bathrooms, you can never be sure what kind of cross-contamination can unknowingly occur when so many people are handling and preparing foods, along with silverware, dishes, receipts, and paper money, in a busy restaurant.
The consequences of ingesting microbes from a dirty lemon wedge can range from upset stomach to gastroenteritis and are more likely to strike immunocompromised people. Most diners with a strong, robust immune system will not suffer great ailment, but it’s probably not worth a risk if you don’t have to take it, right?
Keep in mind that some restaurants automatically stick a wedge of lemon on the rim of your glass or plop one in the drink itself whether or not you request it. Be sure to tell your server that you do not want any garnish in your drink so it doesn’t arrive with unwanted bacteria that you would rather not expose yourself to.
Of course, food preparation methods outside of your own home are, by and large, out of your control. So the next time you’re offered a lemon wedge of lemon with your water—or iced tea or diet soda—you’re probably better of skipping it altogether. If you really crave that zesty bit of flavor in your beverage, try cutting up some wedges at home. First, thoroughly scrub the skin’s surface under running water with a scouring sponge or another similar cleaning device.
Then, roll the lemon around on a newly sanitized surface to release some of the juice from the fruit. (Be especially diligent about sanitizing cutting boards, which have been shown to contain more fecal bacteria than a toilet seat!) Using a clean knife, cut into the lemon until you have as many lemon wedges as you desire. Then clean all surfaces and tools after bagging the cut lemon.
Bringing the freshly prepared lemon wedge to the restaurant in a plastic baggie. Then you can squeeze and sip to your heart’s delight, put any contamination concerns aside, and truly enjoy your meal.