In a desperate attempt to avoid the flu that’s knocked out 80 percent of his colleagues, your friend’s been guzzling OJ—despite what you've told him about overdoing it on juice. Yesterday, he awoke from his slumber to find the gallon still sitting out on the counter. Now he’s wondering if he can salvage his five bucks and pop it back in the fridge—or if something funky’s brewing in there that could knock him out harder than that flu.
The FDA says that leaving perishable foods out of the fridge for two hours or more allows bacteria to multiply, which can put people at risk for contracting nasty foodborne illnesses like salmonella and E.coli. On their website, Tropicana says “we do not recommend using chilled juices that have been left unrefrigerated more than three hours,“ but doesn’t explain why. We know that when it comes to refrigerated foods, there’s a pretty big range of what survives hours on the counter and what doesn’t—milk spoils quickly, but butter can last outside the fridge for days. But while it's smart to be cautious, it's not necessarily the end of the world if you absentmindedly take a swig. (More on that in a moment.)
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What’s Likely to Happen
“Because it’s super acidic, store-bought orange juice is one of those few items that won’t make you sick if left out,” says Keith R. Schneider, professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Florida. Part of the reason is that it’s got a pretty similar PH to ketchup, Schneider says, and highly acidic environments make it tough for bacteria to multiply. (That's why most preservatives are acids.) And because store-bought OJ is also pasteurized (heat-treated) to kill off any harmful bacteria like Salmonella or E. Coli that could have slipped in during the production process, there’s almost zero chance you’d fall ill, Schneider says. That said, unrefrigerated OJ will spoil after more than a few hours and probably won't taste great. As it sits on the counter at room temp, fermentation sets in, producing lactic acid organisms that give off a funky flavor and destroy the shelf life of the juice.
The Worst That Could Happen
There's one big exception to all of this: If you're drinking fresh, unpasteurized juice, Schneider says it should go right in the trash if it's been left out. Fresh juices tend to be less acidic—especially if that fancy cold-pressed OJ was blended with carrots or another less-acidic fruit or veggie. Without the pasteurization process, counter time could up your risk for contracting a nasty foodborne illness that slipped in and multiplied. Pathogens from, say, the hands that picked the fruit, or the machine that squeezed it, can contaminate juice and spread fast. Translation: You’d be on the toilet for some time—if not in the hospital.
What to Tell Your Friend
If the OJ is store-bought, take a whiff or sip to see how much spoilage has set in. If it’s not offensive, pop it back in the fridge. Forgot to put away a bottle of raw juice? It’s not worth the risk—toss it and start mourning your 12 bucks.
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