The innocent looking slice of lemon sprucing up your water-glass is not what it appears. Just like the horror stories about bar nuts and how covered in germs they are, now the humble lemon wedge has come in for a germ-test. Anyone who frequents a bar or restaurant is being warned of the potentially hazardous bacterial life swarming all over the rinds and flesh of lemons.
The Journal of Environmental Health sent researchers to collect lemons from 21 eateries over 46 visits. Then they swabbed them and stood back to see what grew in the petri dishes. The results were pretty yeuky, with 70 percent breaking out into various forms of microbial sproutings. Lemon juice itself is a powerful and cleansing antimicrobial agent, but it seems the skins can teem with “potentially pathogenic microbes.” When the results were written up the team concluded that the contamination may have come from several sources, possibly raw meat or poultry in the kitchens, unwashed hands of staff or other sources.
Dr Philip Tierno has done similar experiments before and he has found that half the lemon wedges he collected had contamination on them, mainly of human fecal matter. He is clinical professor of microbiology and pathology at NYU’s Lanhorne Medical Center. Just to be more specific, Tierno said that he detected representations from the three main body sites from where men usually “impart their flora.” Meaning bacteria from the intestine, the mouth and the skin. Among others he picked out E.coli and staphylococcus epidermidis.
So could the piece of lemon bobbing about in your drink actually make you ill? Probably not, says Tierno, but there is a small, albeit distinct possibility it might. It depends how good your immune system is at the time.
Nobody would ever go out at all if they turned into “Howard Hughes” and freaked out about the other organisms sharing our space. Tierno has done his tests on all sorts of other garnishes from cherries to olives, and on tableware like ketchup bottles and salt and pepper pots,and yes, they are all swarming with bacteria. “Microbes are ubiquitous” he says. Choosing a clean-looking restaurant is a wise move, but apart from that, there is not a lot any of us can do to inhabit a germ-free night-out.
Next time the bar tender asks “Ice and a lemon slice?” however, you may think twice. Squeezing the lemon juice into the drink instead is a recommendation from microbiologists. That’s one sure way to get the citrus burst without the bugs.
There haven’t been any reports of people falling sick after drinking drinks with lemon in them and as alcohol is a pretty powerful sterilizer, it has to be assumed that the average gin or vodka cocktail is going to zap away the nasties.
Communion wine in the chalice has been proven to be loaded with bacteria, after all those mouths have had a sip, and there have never been any reports of church-related public health crisis as a result.
Some of these studies need to be looked at with a pinch of salt, but maybe not with a slice of lemon?
By Kate Henderson