It seems like every other day scientists discover a seemingly benevolent, everyday food item is actually a germ-riddled toxic bomb. For instance, remember that time when researchers studied restaurant lemons and found them to be covered in pathogens more commonly associated with the bathroom than the kitchen? Everyone and their mother claimed they would never order lemons in their water again.
Unfortunately, the problem goes way further than just lemons.
There are many food items in the kitchens of our homes and restaurants that carry a plethora of microbes that can be dangerous for us. Those microbes are also breeding on our appliances. Most people don’t know this and haven’t been properly cleaning their food (or kitchen).
It’s not about being excessive or having a compulsion. It’s a matter of being safe about food.
Still, it’s better to learn late than never. That’s why we’re here to share with you some common microbial problems in the kitchen and what you can do to decrease their presence.
The 5-second rule is not as trustworthy as we thought.
If you drop your pizza on the floor and then quickly pick it up, you might think it’s okay to continue eating it, but that’s not necessarily the case.
While it’s true that the amount of time spent on the floor makes a difference, studies show that other factors are important, too, such as what sort of germs were on the surface and whether the surface or the food were wet.
For example, if you drop a dry chip onto the kitchen counter that you recently cleaned, your chances are of getting sick are lower. But if you drop oily pizza onto a floor where your pets are walking, you will likely be picking up a lot of unwanted bacteria.
Lemons carry a multitude of microbes on them.
A study back in 2007 found that more than two-thirds of lemon slices in restaurants had microbial contamination.
Lemon juice itself is actually supposed to be antimicrobial, the study says. Many people will squeeze it onto their hands, food, or kitchen utensils to sterilize them. But the lemons in the study had 25 different microbial species on the peel and flesh. Researchers said they could have come from fecal matter, raw-meat, or poultry contamination.
In another study commissioned by ABC in 2012, cameras caught restaurant employees handling lemons with their bare hands.
A more recent study from 2017 found that if lemons were contaminated with E. coli and left at room temperature for 24 hours, the bacteria population increased. And while refrigeration managed to stave off population growth for the others, it did not kill off the already-present bacteria.
One possible solution is to squeeze the juice of the lemon into your drink instead of putting the whole slice inside.
Most produce items are carrying microbes.
It’s not just lemons you have to watch out for. Other drink garnishes like olives, cherries, and celery could be covered in the same microbes. It’s not a restaurant-specific problem, though. Much of the produce we bring home from grocery stores is also contaminated.
Glenner Richards, PhD, is the director of microbiology and analytical chemistry laboratories at Microban, a world leader in antimicrobial research and technology. She researches this sort of thing every day.
Richards tells HealthyWay contamination usually happens in the field before shipping the product to grocery stores or restaurants.
“When it’s contaminated and you take it home and put it in your refrigerator, obviously you can contaminate other food items and surfaces in your refrigerator,” she says.
Lettuce, spinach, and tomatoes are good examples of food prone to contamination, Richards says; she also cautions us about cantaloupe.
“Cantaloupe have a very rough exterior,” she says. “So bacteria are hiding out there and it has been proven that if the skin is contaminated and then you use a knife to cut through, you’re introducing the bacteria off the flesh.”
Obviously you won’t be removing everything, but it’s cleaner.
Richards recommends washing your cantaloupe and drying it with a paper towel before cutting into it.
“Obviously you won’t be removing everything,” she says. “But it’s cleaner.”
Double-dipping is as gross as we think.
Lots of people are grossed out by double-dipping, but how bad is it really?
According to one study, it depends on what you’re dipping in.
Researchers tested salsa, melted cheese, and chocolate syrup to see how much mouth bacteria appeared after double dipping. Salsa had five times more bacteria than the chocolate and cheese.
Food scientist Paul Dawson told CNN that there was a likely reason for this.
“Common sense tells you that if you bite it and dip it in the salsa and more of it falls back into the bowl and doesn’t stick to the chip, then there’s going to be more bacteria going back in the bowl with it,” he said.
The chocolate syrup and the cheese, unlike the salsa, managed to stay on the chips better and therefore did not transfer as much bacteria.
So what’s the obvious solution? Don’t double-dip.
Blowing out the birthday candles is not good for your party guests.
Birthday cake in general is not something to be feared. However, if the guest of honor blows out some candles on the dessert, you might think twice about having a piece.
Dawson learned that when we blow out candles, there are 15 times more bacteria on the frosting than when the candles are not blown out. This is because the bacteria in our mouth travel through blowing.
“The amount of bacteria varies a lot from person to person based on how sloppy someone is when blowing their candles out, but it does occur,” Dawson told CNN. “I don’t know the chance of this occurring, but in fact if someone is sick, carrying a disease, and blows on the birthday cake, there is going to be bacterial transfer.”
Kitchen appliances are harboring a lot of the bacteria we want to avoid.
Sometimes it’s not the food itself but the tools we’re using that could make us sick.
Richards lists several kitchen appliances that are havens for bacteria.
Remember that moisture only encourages growth.
It may sound ironic, but the first on her list is the dishwasher. “It harbors a lot of microbes for the simple reason that there’s a lot of moisture,” she says.
Dirty dishes carry nutrients with them into the dishwasher. If the dishwasher remains wet, it can become moldy and encourage the growth of bacteria and yeast. All that gross stuff is then transferred to what we think are our clean dishes. Richards recommends leaving your dishwasher open to dry and periodically doing a hot rinse with bleach water.
The refrigerator can also be dangerous because it’s full of highly perishable foods, such as meats, eggs, and dairy.
“Of course you’re coming in with the packaging from the grocery store, so whatever microbes and germs are in the refrigerator at the grocery store, you’re putting them in your refrigerator,” she says. Chicken, for example, could be leaking from the bag, and if you put that bag in the refrigerator, there could be a salmonella presence.
Richards reminds us that the refrigerator does not kill germs. It only slows their growth. What’s more, there are some microbes that continue to grow at a steady rate in colder temperatures.
She recommends occasionally emptying your refrigerator and wiping down the surfaces with warm, soapy water. Then leave them to dry. Remember that moisture only encourages growth.
Also be sure to wash and dry your produce and then put them in separate containers in the fridge, rather than just dropping them on the surface. Finally, she says, don’t buy more food than you need. Try to keep food items stocked in your fridge for no more than a week.
If your food gets moldy and you consume it, there can be long-term consequences. Richards says those molds develop mycotoxins, which are proven to be carcinogens.
Finally, when it comes to storing and transporting goods, she tells us it’s better to wash your reusable grocery bags and to designate one bag for produce and another for meat so that you can avoid cross contamination.
It’s no joke that appliances are dirty. Here are some more examples:
Yet another dangerous kitchen item is the cutting board.
Richards says the grooves that are formed from our cuts become “excellent places for microbes to get lodged into and they reproduce.”
She recommends having separate cutting boards for various uses, such as one for poultry and one for produce. She also says to periodically throw out your cutting boards and get new ones.
The blender and can opener are other breeding grounds.
“I have an electric (can opener) at home and there’s a tiny blade that goes into the food, and then residue is left over,” she says. “You’re just moving all those germs from one can to the next.” That’s why it’s important to disassemble appliances and wash thoroughly.
Also be sure to wash and drain your sink, Richards says. She uses vinegar because it’s not corrosive like bleach.
“It’s not about being excessive or having a compulsion,” she says. “Our immune systems work, but you [need to] try to keep contamination to a minimum. It’s a matter of being smart about food.”
For more ideas on how to keep your kitchen and food safe, visit Microban’s website, The Cleaner Home, which provides a virtual kitchen to explore.