Going to a restaurant for a meal is one of life’s greatest pleasures. It allows you to socialize with your loved ones while indulging in delicious food that (bonus) you didn’t have to prepare yourself.
But restaurant eating isn’t without its pitfalls. There are a number of foods that should be avoided for reasons of safety and health — and we don’t just mean undercooked chicken and deep-fried Mars bars.
“In theory, almost any food item could be contaminated, but some carry more risks than others,” says Keith Warriner, a professor in the department of food sciences at the University of Guleph.
Here’s a list of six foods that are best to avoid when you’re dining out. From bacterial risks to concerns of cross-contamination, these items have the potential to turn a delicious experience into an evening of regret.
Cocktails and mocktails are all part of the experience when enjoying a night out on the town, but those fancy garnishes that adorn your drink, whether they’re perched on the edge of your glass or skewered and dropped right in, can carry some serious consequences if eaten.
“Garnishes are great for visuals but they can be subjected to all forms of contamination,” says Jason Tetro, a microbiologist and author of The Germ Code.
“Most of the time, they are kept at room temperature and are being handled continually by multiple individuals, including patrons if they are sitting at the bar. The risk for exposure to pathogens — not just gastrointestinal but others including respiratory and possibly mumps — means that these items should remain out of your mouth.”
Warriner says that he conducted a small study on garnishes and found cherries and olives to carry the highest bacterial load.
A popular addition to salads and a staple in some cuisines, sprouts are a healthy ingredient but if they haven’t been handled properly, they can carry risks.
“Sprouts are like Petri plates; they are perfect for microbial growth,” Tetro says. “If there is any type of contamination — either from the source or during preparation — they can sustain survival and growth of many pathogens, not just salmonella.”
Warriner also points out that sprouts have been implicated in several outbreaks and that microgreens are considered safer.
Ordering several bottles of water in a restaurant can really add up on your bill, but sometimes it’s worth the price.
Although the Government of Canada points out that Canadian drinking water supplies are of “excellent” quality, it can pick up trace amounts of contaminants that it comes into contact with, including minerals, silt, vegetation, fertilizers and agricultural run-off.
In general, as long as the water is coming from a known public utility source (i.e. city water), it’s safe. However, Warriner warns against the ice that can be floating in your water.
“Ice machines can build up contamination if not maintained,” he says.
“These places use municipal water, which has chlorine in it, to make ice, so they have to take the chlorine out, otherwise the ice will taste awful. They’ll pass the water through a filter first, but if that filter hasn’t been cleaned or changed, there will be a buildup of biofilm bacteria that can have things like fecal coliform and E. coli.”
It’s one thing if you go to a juice bar and order a concoction that’s blended before your eyes, and which you drink right away. But if you order fresh-squeezed juice in an establishment and you don’t know when it was squeezed, you might not be getting the freshest product after all.
“Juices are safe if they’re prepared from sound ingredients and consumed within 24 hours,” Warriner says. “The big risk is when it’s made from less than sound ingredients, like drop apples.”
Furthermore, Tetro says, if the juice has been sitting around at room temperature for more than four hours, it can be a breeding ground for bacteria.
The all-you-can-eat buffet is a blessing for parents dining out with kids since it gives them a wide array of options, but it may not be the safest choice.
“Buffet foods are usually turned over rapidly and as such are not as large of a concern,” Tetro says.
“The real issue comes in the preparation of the food such that there may be a chance for cross-contamination. If you are going to eat at a buffet, make sure it’s cooked or has not seen the kitchen — such as the chocolate fountain. As for produce, without knowing how it was prepared, you may wish to pass.”
Fish on Monday
In an essay for The New Yorker, Anthony Bourdain explained why ordering fish in a restaurant on a Monday is rarely a good idea. It’s all about timing.
Chefs, he says, order their seafood on Thursdays for Friday morning delivery. The goal is to sell most of it between the busy Friday and Saturday dinner shifts, with the hope being that the last of it will be served on Sunday evening.
“Many fish purveyors don’t deliver on Saturday, so the chances are that the Monday night tuna you want has been kicking around in the kitchen since Friday morning, under God knows what conditions.”
Furthermore, during those busy weekend nights, the fridge is opened multiple times as cooks frantically search for ingredients. As a result, that fish could come into contact with any number of other foods, like lamb, chicken or beef.