Here's why you should never put lemon in your drink

A slice of lemon is an easy way to add a touch of citrus to your water, soda, or tea, but some studies show that extra flavor might not be worth the risk. In fact, there's a good chance it's making you sick.

In 2007, a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health looked at whether or not lemon slices served with drinks at restaurants were contaminated with viruses or bacteria, and their results were disturbing. Researchers collected 76 lemon slices from 21 different restaurants, spaced out over a period of 43 visits. Almost 70 percent of their samples collected produced some microbial growth on either the rind, the flesh, or both — and all of those microbes have the potential to cause some type of disease. That makes your lemon water seem a little less refreshing, doesn't it?

So where is all that contamination coming from? According to Clemson University researchers who revisited the topic in 2017, it can come from contaminated hands, cutting boards, or utensils, just to start. Their study found that when hands contaminated with E. coli touched wet lemons, the bacteria was transferred 100 percent of the time. If the lemon was dry, that transfer only happened 30 percent of the time, but how often is a fresh lemon completely dry when it's being handled?

If you don't trust your server or bartender to handle your lemon with care, there's always the self-service drink station, right? Wrong. Those same researchers from Clemson explained that while those lemon slices have the same opportunities to become contaminated while they're being sliced, they have even greater risk because other customers using those same garnishes can spread bacteria from their hands to the bowl. Even worse, if they're not kept properly cool, even the smallest E. coli infestation can multiply at a rapid pace. 

And don't think it's any safer to order lemon slices on your cocktail — the alcohol in your drink probably won't keep you healthy. Another study showed that most bacteria can survive a swim in an alcoholic beverage — even 86-proof tequila. 

If you just can't let go of your lemon slices, at least be aware of the conditions of the restaurant before you place your order. According to Dr. Alan Taege, an infectious disease specialist at The Cleveland Clinic, you should take a look at the people handling food and beverages. "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. 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."

If your lemon is contaminated, Taege says that doesn't always mean you'll get sick. If you have a healthy immune system, you can probably fight off the bacteria, but anyone with a compromised immune system should be cautious. 

Still, even if you think you (and your immune system) can take it, do you really want to order a side of bacteria with your next drink? Choose carefully!