Most of us have fond childhood memories of getting a kiddie cup of cold soda and sipping it slowly, delighting at its sweet fizz. But ever since a shocking 2010 study of soda fountain beverages revealed that nearly half were contaminated with coliform bacteria, many people have become concerned about how clean soda fountains actually are. Is it dangerous to drink soda from restaurants? Is there any way to tell if it's actually dirty?
To get to the bottom of these questions, we found studies and news stories, read personal testimonies, and interviewed a food-safety expert. Here’s everything you need to know about soda fountain cleanliness, and whether you should risk drinking beverages from them.
Soda fountains should be sanitary...in theory.
As with most restaurant equipment, there are strict guidelines for keeping soda fountains clean. According to Katie Heil, food and beverage content manager for Certus, they should be “sanitized as often as the fountain manufacturer recommends or as often as necessary to prevent buildup of grime or mold.” Heil also noted that most manufacturers, including Pepsi and Coke suggest that “nozzles...be removed, cleaned, and sanitized daily” and that “syrup connectors” (the pieces that connect the soda syrup to the soda machine lines) should be “cleaned and sanitized weekly.” If restaurants follow these regulations, the soda fountains should be sanitary and safe to drink from.
But that isn't always the case.
According to Heil, “many restaurant chains address daily cleaning...(of) soda fountain nozzles and exteriors as part of...closing procedures." This is their way of trying to ensure that daily sanitization actually happens. But restaurants are busy places, full of equipment to clean, and there's often limited staff.
“At understaffed restaurants, tasks like cleaning soda fountains are less likely to be completed than tasks that contribute to the visible cleanliness of the facility,” says Heil. In other words, just because the job is on the daily cleaning list doesn’t mean it’s actually happening. And if it doesn’t happen—or is done incorrectly—all sorts of disgusting things can build up inside the soda lines and nozzles, such as:
Fecal bacteria is one of the scariest things that can grow inside a soda fountain. In the alarming 2010 study, nearly 50 percent of the 90 soda fountain beverages taken from Virginia restaurants “tested positive for coliform,” a bacteria indicating possible fecal contamination. Several samples tested positive for E.coli, while others tested positive for Chryseobacterium minigosepticum, a bacteria that can easily sicken infants and those with weak immune systems.
There were no foodborne illness outbreaks in Virginia at the time of the study, but the authors noted that the findings were still “of considerable concern” because they suggested that “more pathogenic strains of bacteria could persist and thrive in soda fountain machines.” In other words, soda fountains can easily become breeding grounds for hosts of deadly bacteria.
If the thought of e. coli in your soda doesn’t turn you off, black mold just might. In 2017, a story by Fox revealed that Florida state health inspectors had discovered “slimy black and green slimy mold-like substances” in soda fountain nozzles during surprise inspections at a dozen local restaurants. Mold grows in high-moisture environments and feeds on sugar, so it’s not surprising that it would thrive in uncleaned nozzles or lines. Daily sanitizing would prevent that, but short of a full inspection, it’s hard to know if a specific restaurant is following those cleaning regimens, or if their machines are clogged with mold too.
Bugs are drawn to sugar, and soda fountains, with their syrupy lines and sugary nozzles, are an absolute sugarfest. If regularly cleaned, the residue never builds up enough to attract bugs; unattended, they can become a bug’s favorite snacking ground. In one such story, former New York City restaurant server Rob Gunther described opening the top of the soda fountain one day, only to see “dozens upon dozens of cockroaches...running around.” He describes it as “one of the grossest things I’ve ever seen.” Of course, that's just one example, and not all soda fountains are infested.
How do you know?
Many soda fountains are perfectly sanitary and safe to drink from. But some are definitely not. Short of personally inspecting a machine and taking a bacteria sample of its soda, there’s no way to tell for sure, and that feels like a lot of work and stress for a carbonated beverage. Our biggest takeaway? Follow the advice of restaurant consultant Virgil Cicco and order a bottled drink instead.
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