So, you left your juice out overnight. Shame on you. Just kidding—it happens to the best of us. But now you’re wondering: Is this juice still safe to drink?
Juice left out for more than two hours (including overnight) should be discarded unless it is in an unopened, shelf-stable package. Even if the juice does not have noticeable signs of spoilage, it could have unsafe levels of bacteria and toxins produced by those bacteria.
Below, I’ll give you the full explanation of why it’s unsafe to use juice that was left out overnight. I’ll also clear up which juice packages are shelf-stable, how to tell if your juice has “gone bad,” and more.
How Long Can Juice Be Left Out?
Let’s start with the official answer, based on USDA recommendations: Juice should not be consumed if it was left out for more than two hours. This applies to any juice containers that must be refrigerated, and really, to any perishable food items.
Temperatures between 40 and 140 °F are referred to as the “Danger Zone.” In this temperature range, bacteria can double quickly, and these bacteria can make you sick. (source)
If it’s extra hot in your house (over 90°F or 32°C), the rule is one hour. After merely one hour left in these hot temperatures, the juice should be discarded. This applies if you leave a previously opened bottle of juice in a hot car, for example.
Now, many people will disagree with this strict rule. Even Tropicana’s website suggests three hours, rather than two hours as the rule. If you ask friends about this topic, you may hear from people who say they leave out juice all the time and they’ve never gotten sick.
There are two things I want to note here. Firstly: Many people mistake food poisoning for something like the stomach flu. So they may have indeed gotten sick from food or drinks that were left out, without realizing that’s what happened.
But, secondly: There are some legit arguments why it may be ok to drink juice that was left out. And it depends partly on what kind of juice it is.
Does It Depend on the Kind of Juice? (Apple vs Orange, etc)
It’s true that the risk of food poisoning is much lower with some juices than others. Two key factors to consider are pasteurization and acidity.
First, many store-bought juices are pasteurized. This is a heating process meant to kill harmful bacteria. If a juice was pasteurized, there’s far less risk of harmful bacteria. With cold-pressed or “raw” juice, the risk is higher.
Secondly, many fruit juices are very acidic. With orange juice, cranberry juice, lemon juice, grapefruit juice, and other highly acidic juices, their acidic environment is not easy for bacteria to grow in. So these are safer to leave out than less acidic juices like pear juice.
But there is some risk in any case. And keep in mind: Even if you boil the juice to kill bacteria, it will not rid the juice of all possible toxins created by the bacteria. So there is always going to be some risk when you leave juice out overnight.
Another Risk (Besides Bacteria)
Aside from bacteria, there is also a chance the juice may spoil when left out overnight. This is a totally different process, and it still happens to acidic, pasteurized juices, too.
Basically, the sugars in the juice may start fermenting, and the taste will change. It may not even taste good to you anymore after a night or longer on the counter. Luckily, this is an effect you can taste and smell, so it’s not as much of an invisible threat.
See more below on “how to tell if juice is bad.”
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What About Unopened Juice?
Some kinds of unopened juice containers are fine to leave out overnight. If the juice was not refrigerated in the store, you shouldn’t need to refrigerate it at home until it’s opened. But if the juice was refrigerated in the store, usually it must be refrigerated at home, too.
For example, at grocery stores, often the apple juice, grape juice, and cranberry juice come in bottles on the shelf, not refrigerated at all.
Typically, these shelf-stable bottles of juice are pasteurized and have a “best by” date that is very far in the future. There is no risk when leaving them out overnight if they are still unopened.
However, if you buy a carton of orange juice from the refrigerator, that should typically be refrigerated at home, too. Check the container for specific instructions, but if it was refrigerated in the store, you likely need to refrigerate it at home, too—even if unopened.
How Can You Tell If Juice Has Gone Bad?
You may have heard some of these common sense ways to check if your juice has gone bad:
- If it smells bad (like alcohol or vinegar)
- If the taste has become more sour
- If the container is bloated
- If you see mold
These may help you identify some cases of spoiled juice. But I would not rely on these signs alone to check my juice, especially if it was left out at room temperature.
When it comes to juice that was left out unrefrigerated, you shouldn’t try to judge if it’s bad solely by using your senses. In addition, consider the number of hours it has spent in the “danger zone” of 40 to 140°F.
If it was in the “Danger Zone” for more than two hours, it should be thrown out, according to USDA recommendations.
Unfortunately, you cannot rely on your sense of smell and taste to know for sure whether juice has dangerous levels of harmful bacteria. This is explained in a fact sheet from the FDA:
“You may be surprised to learn that food can make you very sick even when it doesn’t look, smell, or taste spoiled. That’s because foodborne illnesses are caused by pathogenic bacteria, which are different from the spoilage bacteria that make foods ‘go bad.'”
The document goes on to explain that many foods contain a small amount of pathogenic bacteria when you buy them from the store. So all it takes is a few hours of time in the “danger zone” (40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit), and those bacteria can multiply many times.
Here’s the takeaway: If you left out your juice overnight, you likely shouldn’t try to “figure out” if it went bad by looking at it, smelling it, or tasting it. You can’t accurately judge the levels of pathogenic bacteria that have multiplied by using your senses alone.
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