Lemon or lime wedges can perk up your drink or add a touch of flavor to your water in a restaurant. However, those drink garnishes can easily be contaminated with bacteria. Depending on whether they wear gloves or wash their hands carefully, restaurant employees can spread bacteria when they prepare the slices.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
“People enjoy having lemon wedges in their water or drinks to enhance the flavor,” says infectious disease specialist Alan Taege, MD. “Unfortunately, several studies have found a significant number of bacteria on those slices that can cause illness and disease, and most of them are typical of what you may find when people handling them don’t wash their hands well.”
In one study published in the Journal of Environmental Health, researchers swabbed samples of the flesh and rind of lemon slices that had been placed on the rims of beverage glasses. Then they checked them for any microbial contents.
Nearly 70 percent of these samples from 21 restaurants produced microbial growth of 25 different microbial species. The rest showed no signs of microbial growth.
How to protect yourself
It can be difficult to know if restaurant and bar employees handle lemon wedges in a sanitary way. You can’t always see the people preparing these slices if they are in a kitchen or behind a bar. Often, they’ve sliced the lemon wedges and put them in a container before you arrived.
Even so, Dr. Taege advises that you always keep your eyes open.
“If you’re at a bar or a restaurant and you see people behind the counter handling wedges with their bare hands, that may be a good sign not to have a lemon or lime in whatever it is you’re going to drink,” he says. “However, if they are wearing plastic gloves when they handle them or they use little tongs to put them in the glass, then the risk is much lower for those slices to be contaminated with bacteria.”
The dangers of contaminated fruit in your drink
According to Dr. Taege, most people’s immune systems are strong enough to fight any bacteria. For example, natural defense mechanisms like stomach acid usually inactivate these bacteria. Typically, these type of bacteria from unwashed hands may, however, cause upset stomachs or diarrheal illnesses such as bacterial gastroenteritis.
The biggest concern, Dr. Taege says, is for people with compromised immune systems. If you suffer from a significant illness such as renal failure or diabetes, you may be more at risk. It’s also more dangerous for people who are taking medications or receiving chemotherapy or other treatments that may suppress their immune system.
“In those cases, you need to be extra careful,” he says. “I would suggest that you only consume drinks from a bottle that you know is sterile.”