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Bacteria in Beverages: The Good and the Bad

There have been several stories in the news lately about the dangers of drinking, and we're not talking about alcohol and durian fruit this time.Recently, the International Journal of Food Microbiology reported that biologists in Roanoke, Virginia analyzed "microbial populations" in soda and water ...

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There have been several stories in the news lately about the dangers of drinking, and we're not talking about alcohol and durian fruit this time.

Courtesy Flickr user zoomar

Recently, the International Journal of Food Microbiology reported that biologists in Roanoke, Virginia analyzed "microbial populations" in soda and water dispensed from 30 beverage fountain machines (both self-service and staff-operated) in restaurants and cafeterias. They found coliform bacteria in nearly half of the samples, plus other "opportunistic pathogenic microorganisms" (translation: icky stuff). Even scarier, most of the bacteria they identified proved resistant to one or more types of antibiotics.

The scientists concluded that such soda fountains "may contribute to episodic gastric distress in the general population," or more serious consequences for immunocompromised people, revealing a need for better hygiene regulations and enforcement.

I guess it's safer to just drink from the tap. Right? Um, maybe not—according to this post on the Atlantic's food channel, even basic tap water in some locales can pose health risks! Bottled water, then? Looks like that can have contaminants too, and obviously it's not the most environmentally friendly choice.

So, what's a water-dependent human to do? Drink more beer, I guess...it might even rehydrate you better after exercise. (Obviously, there are drawbacks to this approach!)



Courtesy Flickr user kaytethinks

Personally, I drink mostly filtered tap water, both at work and at home, and go for tea or bottled juice in take-out situations.

On the other hand, let's not get too phobic. Some folks actually drink bacteria-laden beverages on purpose!

Ever heard of kombucha? It's a mix of black and green tea (or sometimes, juice) fermented with bacterial cultures, yeast and sugar. I don't care for its tangy, slightly carbonated taste, but some of my friends love kombucha and believe it boosts their immune systems. (This Mayo Clinic doctor is skeptical.)

And then there's "probiotics," a buzzword of the past few years that refers to the various "friendly bacteria" naturally present in the human gastrointestinal system. They're advertised in many types of yogurts and yogurt drinks, as well as kefir (a kind of fermented milk), and even some mass-marketed smoothies.

In the end, I think food and beverage safety is like most matters in life—it's important to be mindful but not obsessive (on an individual consumer level, anyway).
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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