So, you left your lemonade out overnight. Shame on you. Just kidding—it happens to the best of us. But now you’re wondering: Is this lemonade still safe to drink?
Lemonade left out for two hours or more (including overnight) should be discarded unless it’s in an unopened, shelf-stable package. Even if the lemonade lacks any 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 lemonade that was left out overnight. I’ll also clear up which lemonades are shelf-stable, how to tell if your lemonade has “gone bad,” and more.
How Long Can Lemonade Be Left Out?
Let’s start with the official answer, based on USDA recommendations: Lemonade should not be consumed if it was left out for more than two hours. This applies to any lemonade 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 lemonade should be discarded. This applies if you leave a previously opened bottle of lemonade in a hot car, for example.
Now, many people will disagree with this strict rule. If you ask friends about this topic, you may hear from people who say they’ve left out lemonade and they didn’t get 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 lemonade that was left out. Part of that is just that lemonade is quite acidic, so it’s not the easiest environment for bacteria to grow in.
But it also depends on what kind of lemonade it is.
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Does It Depend on the Kind of Lemonade?
The risk of food poisoning is indeed lower with some lemonades than others. One of the key factors to consider is pasteurization.
Many store-bought lemonades are pasteurized. For example, Simply Lemonade is pasteurized. This is a heating process meant to kill harmful bacteria.
Homemade, fresh-squeezed lemonade, however, does not have this benefit. If your lemonade was pasteurized, there’s far less risk of harmful bacteria.
But there is some risk in any case. And keep in mind: Even if you boiled the lemonade to kill bacteria, it will not rid the lemonade of all possible toxins created by the bacteria. So there is always going to be some risk when you leave lemonade out overnight.
Another Risk (Besides Bacteria)
Aside from bacteria, there is also a chance the lemonade may spoil when left out overnight. This is a different process, and it can still happen to pasteurized lemonade, too.
Basically, the sugars in the lemonade could start fermenting, and the taste will change. It may not even taste good to you anymore after a night 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 lemonade is bad.”
What About Unopened Bottles of Lemonade?
Some kinds of unopened lemonade containers are fine to leave out overnight. If the lemonade was not refrigerated in the store, you shouldn’t need to refrigerate it at home until it’s opened. But if the lemonade was refrigerated in the store, usually it must be refrigerated at home, too.
Typically, these shelf-stable bottles of lemonade are pasteurized and have a “best by” date that is far in the future. There is no risk when leaving them out overnight if they are still unopened.
However, if you buy lemonade from a refrigerated section of the grocery store, that should typically be refrigerated at home, too. Check the container for instructions, but if it was refrigerated in the store, you likely need to refrigerate it at home, too—even if unopened.
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How Can You Tell If Lemonade Has Gone Bad?
You may have heard some of these common sense ways to check if your lemonade has gone bad:
- If it smells bad
- 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 lemonade. But I would not rely on these signs alone to check my lemonade, especially if it was left out at room temperature.
When it comes to lemonade 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 can’t rely on your sense of smell and taste to know for sure whether lemonade 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 have 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 lemonade 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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