RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—When you think fountain soda, you may imagine a cool, refreshing drink. Or maybe a caffeine boost or sugar rush. Perhaps hiccups from the carbonation. But a new study published this month in the International Journal of Food Biology found that coliform bacteria, a type associated with fecal matter, is an unexpected ingredient in an alarming number of tested fountain drinks.
THE DETAILS: Study author Amy White, MS, assistant professor of biology at Virginia Western Community College, and colleagues tested 20 self-service beverage stations and 10 at which workers pour drinks for customers, to come up with a total of 90 fountain-beverage samples. The tests including sugared and diet sodas, as well as water from the fountain. While none of the ice, which was also tested, exceeded U.S. drinking-water standards, 48 percent of the fountain drinks tested contained coliform bacteria, with 20 percent containing amounts higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) allows in drinking water. More than 11 percent of the analyzed drinks contained E. coli bacteria, a type of coliform that the EPA does not allow in any amount in drinking water. Researchers also detected other microorganisms that can make people sick, particularly people with compromised immune systems. Most of the bacteria was resistant to at least one of 11 antibiotics tested. "In our study, we tested sodas and water from bottles as controls, and none contained any microbial growth," White adds.
Read on to find out how to avoid germy soda.
WHAT IT MEANS: So why are these microorganisms flourishing in fountain soda? Germ expert Donna Duberg, MA, MS, assistant professor of clinical laboratory science at Saint Louis University in Missouri, says the soda machines provide the perfect environment for bacteria to flourish—lots of sugar and consistent moisture. While White and colleagues did not test how the bacteria wound up in the machines in the first place, she and Duberg say it likely has to do with how people touch the dispensing nozzles, and a lack of proper cleaning to disinfect them. Since E. coli multiplies every 10 to 15 minutes, unless you take the machine apart and wash its parts in hot, soapy water or a disinfecting solution, it doesn't take long for a real problem to develop.
This isn't the first time soda fountains have been under fire. In fact, high levels of bacteria in German hospital fountain dispensers prompted officials to remove the machines from wards with immuno-compromised patients.
Here's how to lower your risk of getting sick from soda:
• Reach for a bottle. This study suggests that if you do want to drink soda (which, by the way, we don't recommend you do often for other health  and environmental  reasons, including excess calories and a high carbon footprint) you may want to select bottled over fountain to avoid a case of the skeeves. While a normal, healthy adult may be able to tolerate small amounts of even drug-resistant E. coli (or suffer relatively mild digestive upset), the young, old or people with underlying medical conditions like diabetes, organ transplant recipients, and people going through chemotherapy or taking immune-suppressing drugs for other conditions could become extremely sick—or possibly die—if they drink or eat harmful bacteria. Be sure to recycle the container when you're done.
• Eye the ice bucket. In restaurants, ice buckets are commonly used to transport ice from an icemaker to an ice storage bin at the servers' beverage station. By law, those buckets aren't allowed to touch the floor, and they must be placed on clean surfaces, explains Duberg. Ice scoops should not rest in the ice or on a countertop, but should be placed in a separate container to avoid bacteria on the handle contaminating the ice. If you see ice buckets on the floor or scoops in the ice at your favorite eating spot or watering hole, it might be a tip-off that management and workers don't put a lot of stock in other health-code regulations, either.
If you're at a fair or picnic, avoid using ice from coolers housing cans or bottles of soda. While their contents may be sterile, the outside of those cans and bottles could be contaminated with rat and mouse feces, dust, and other harmful substances found in storage facilities.
• Don't blame the container. While it certainly would be more ecofriendly to bring your own reusable container when you have an itch for fountain soda, that isn't going to protect you from the harmful germs. "Unfortunately, bringing your own container would not help. We collected samples in sterile containers, meaning that the beverages themselves contained the microorganisms," explains White. "So, it would not matter what container was used."