Q. One of my co-workers always asks for a slice of lemon in his water. I shudder every time I see that piece of lemon floating in his glass but I don’t have the nerve to tell him it’s probably loaded with germs. Am I mistaken?
A. You are correct. Microbiologist Anne LaGrange Loving was served a Diet Coke with a slice of lemon she had not requested. She decided to check whether the lemon was likely to be contaminated.
She and her co-author surreptitiously swabbed 76 lemon slices served at 21 different restaurants, then cultured the results. Two-thirds of the lemon slices had bacteria on either the rind or the pulp (Journal of Environmental Health, Dec., 2007). Many of these germs have the potential to cause illness, although the study was not designed to discover if any patrons actually became sick.
You’re not the only one to wonder about this. Another reader wrote: “I wish you would address the way water is served in restaurants. It frequently comes with a lemon floating in the water. Tests on lemons from various restaurants found fecal bacteria. They should ask whether you want lemon or not.” We agree with that recommendation.

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  1. cn

    It is not the server handling the lemons, it is the fact that rarely, if ever, are the lemons WASHED before slicing. They are cut up and mixed all together, placing the clean pulp next to the peel that has been touched by who knows how many people.
    It’s the same way at home, wash your fruit BEFORE you cut into it. This goes for melons, citrus, anything that comes enclosed that you have to cut through.
    Most common culprit is e. Coli. BTW, it’s also on your shopping cart.

  2. jo

    I read this years ago, and the bacteria is on any fruit skin that is not washed.
    Lemons go through dozens of hands from the tree to the table most probably handled by migrants in the fields.
    What restaurant takes time to wash (with soap) a bushel of lemons?

  3. Bobbie

    I always ask for lemon on the side, the same as I ask for my salad dressing to be served.

  4. CAH

    I seem to remember this floating around the internet a while ago, and Snopes did an analysis of same–to echo others, no one has ever been identified as contacting illness from lemons/bacteria. I think if we worried about every bacteria on every food we might just stop eating. Common sense is the best idea! If one is worried about bacteria on lemon slices, don’t get them.

  5. Bancroft

    If you eat out, you take your chances with raw food. Between taking that risk or living in a paranoid bubble at home, I’ll choose eating out.

  6. Jo

    I have heard that any fruit that is sliced can become contaminated by the knife carrying bacteria etc. from the rind into the pulp. I wash all fruit before cutting as well as before eating, and use soap on fruit with thick rinds such as oranges and cantaloupe and rinse them quickly and well. I don’t know whether soap is a good or bad idea, but it makes it less likely that the knife will carry the bad stuff inside the fruit. For this reason, I never buy the cut up fruit combos that are sold in stores.

  7. Palma

    I think this is all much ado about nothing. If you are that worried about germs, you shouldn’t eat out. I eat out a lot, in all types of restaurants, the only thing that has ever made me sick was a mayonnaise sauce that wasn’t kept at the right temp. Here’s the truth: a lot of people touch your food before it gets to your plate.

  8. D

    Raising the question is a good start. Addressing the contamination with fecal material as for other bacteria reflect in good part the sanitation issue. Where the food comes from? How much each ingredient travels before it reaches our plate? How about water contamination? Before we crucify the Lemon let’s give it some juices I mean justice.
    Beside the esthetical aspect, Lemon- of some many benefit, can trigger salivation which good for mastication. We squeeze the lemon to decrease the PH of the water that contributes to decrease the bacterial load. Lemon rich in Vitamin C in conjunction with its acidity help the absorption of iron at the contrary of the oxalate containing diet.
    Talking about contamination, for instance, the overuse of the anti-acid medications especially the PPI’s by lowering the acidity of the stomach will allow much more bacteria to continue into that journey to the guts then a contaminated slice of lemon. In short if you are stuck with a slice of lemon in your glass of water, you have three options; ignore the potential contamination and enjoy your meal, make a U-turn and go home, or make a good use of that slice of lemon by giving it your best squeeze now that it is there.

  9. Bettye

    Lemons and limes served with drinks are singled out because they are handled by servers with their bare hands. Even if a server regularly washes her/his hands, he/she also handles trays, money, credit cards, and other items that may not be clean. The lemon or lime may be cut with a sterile knife, but by the time it is put onto the rim of your glass, it may have germs that you don’t expect.
    This is why you should watch the way a server picks up your glass to refill it. If he/she picks it up near the bottom, that is fine. But if the server holds the glass near the top, then her/his hand may contaminate the rim of the glass where you drink.

  10. a.s.

    This isn’t news to READER’S DIGEST or, for that matter, any waitperson who’s honest about it. A few months ago that publication had one of its periodic “XX things your XXXX-person won’t tell you.” this particular one was about things your waiter won’t tell you. Check it out on rd.com. it can be scary!

  11. AA

    It’s probably because waiters/waitresses commonly prepare beverages rather than the cook staff (who are more likely to wear protective gloves and/or frequently wash their hands). The waiters/waitresses that I’ve watched do not put on gloves or use tongs to retrieve the lemon wedges but rather use their bare hands (which probably weren’t washed since they handled money, dirty dishes etc). If the employee’s hands weren’t clean then their touching of the lemons is the likely source of contamination.

  12. Kim

    I’m with Debbie on this one. I’ve heard this about this study before. What makes lemons so special to have bacteria? What about the rest of the food we are served?

  13. EA

    What about the slice of tomato on the side of the plate? What about that nice sprig of parsley? What about anything that’s touched in the kitchen or service area? In fact, how about our home kitchens and the foods we prepare and serve and eat? The earth is crawling with bugs. What about just enjoying something, for heaven’s sake!

  14. EJ

    Same with other fruits. Many alcoholic drinks and beers are served with fresh fruits on or in them. Same risk?

  15. Verna

    Were the lemons washed properly and sliced on a clean board? I love a slice in my water. When served a slice of lemon with fish I always put it in the glass of water when done with the fish. Like anything else be clean with any food product!

  16. Gina

    This is a good example of a problem I have with this web site. I’d like to be appraised not just that “lemon slices in restaurants have germs,” but what germs? are these germs (bacteria) likely to be the same ones I’m going to find in my salad? etc. Also, for the record, exposure to some germs is good for our immune system and there’s no context for this — the assumption is that “germs are bad,” and that may not be the case. OK — off soap box.

  17. M.

    I disagree with microbe growth in ph 7(close to) of water & adding small piece of lemon, which will tilt the ph to acid. Less likely the microbe are harmful in acidic media & the chances 1 to 1 million to only very sensitive individuals.

  18. WRS

    What about alcoholic drinks like a Margarita …will the alcohol kill the germs?

  19. A.C. Hegeman

    Must be the following: lemons are handled by workers with unwashed hands; fecal material may be there from site of origin or picked up in transit; lemons (generally) are not washed prior to use – since traditionally the rind is discarded without direct contact with food or beverage.
    I often put lemon slices in water. Will now ensure the lemons are well washed prior to use. Thanks for posting. This has been an eye opener.

  20. Richard S.

    The problem with your article about lemon wedges is that it appears to lay the blame on lemons. Nowhere is there any explanation concerning why a slice of lemon would be so dangerous. Doesn’t it suggest that the problem lies not in the lemon wedge but in the basic cleanliness of the restaurant and the workers therein? Fecal matter? Do we grow lemons in dung piles? No, the workers don’t wash their hands after using the toilet.
    Seems to me that the lemons are the least of the problems here.

  21. cpmt

    I was going to ask the same thing. What about bread? or butter? or….???? probably a lot of foods served in restaurants are contaminated too. The difference is the flesh of lemons, to my knowledge, are antiseptic and antibacterial, or at least in Europe and the Mediterranean area are use to kill bacteria from water or other liquids.

  22. debbie

    You didn’t really answer exactly where the bacteria, contamination or germs come from? From the knives they are cut with? Or where? And why lemons? What about other food in restaurants? Isn’t other food just as suspect to contamination as lemons? Just wondering why lemons were singled out? Thank you

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