Here’s the dirtiest thing on restaurant tables

Guess what not to touch next time you eat out?

You know the kitchen at home is clean, but what about the tables you eat at when dining out? ABC News set out to discover which items on a restaurant table are the dirtiest, and the answers really surprised us.

Here’s What ABC Discovered

Researchers from the University of Arizona teamed up with ABC to swab common tabletop items at restaurants for germs, including salt and pepper shakers, ketchup, menus and sugar.

The findings of the research may surprise you, but actually make a lot of sense. Here are the worst offenders:

  • Sugar clocked in at the lowest average bacteria count, with 2,300 organisms
  • Ketchup, mustard and salt all fell generally in the middle
  • Pepper is second-highest on the list, with nearly 11,600 organisms
  • Menus top the list with a whopping 185,000 bacterial organisms

18 PHOTOS
18 things in your home that are covered with germs
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18 things in your home that are covered with germs

Sink: It’s where all your kitchen dirt goes (we hope). In fact, it’s home to as many as 500,000 bacteria per square inch. Spray it down often, clean out your food trap, and scrub with scouring powder like Bon Ami at least once a week.

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Cutting boards: Whether you’re chopping meat, veggies or fruit, your cutting board could be Ground Zero for foodborne illness. Prevent cross-contamination by dedicating one board to meats and another to produce. And always wash your board ASAP after using it—especially if you were working with raw meat. Researchers at UC Davis also recommend plastic cutting boards over wood, because they’re easiest to sanitize—they can go in the dishwasher. Clean a wooden cutting board with soap and warm water, dry it quickly, and seal it with butcher-block oil whenever you notice the wood is drying out.

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Countertops: All the action—chopping, mixing, drink-pouring—happens here, so of course they’re covered with little particles of everything. First off, cut the clutter to give crumbs and germs fewer places to hide. Then wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth after every meal.

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Fridge shelves and drawers: Your refrigerator is home to both raw and cooked foods, and if it’s disorganized, they probably come in contact now and then. Store raw meat in a plastic bag to serve as an extra barrier, and stop spoiled food from turning into science experiments by throwing it away as soon as you notice it. Another cool trick we use at our house: Empty and wipe down the shelves and drawers whenever you do a big grocery shop.

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Sponges: They’ve been banned from commercial kitchens—ban them from yours, too. But if you must use a sponge, rinse it with hot water after every swipe. At the end of every day, get it wet and nuke it in the microwave for a minute. Toss it after a few weeks (one week if you’re missing the daily sanitizing routine).

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Dish towels: If you rush through washing your hands, some germs may still be hanging out on them and you’ll transfer those germs to the dish towel. Change dish towels a few times a week, and wash them with hot water when you do the laundry.

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Makeup brushes: They touch your face every day, coming in contact with oils, bacteria and dead skin cells. Wash them with mild soap whenever you notice makeup buildup.

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Towels: Like dish towels, they pick up any germs left after a shower. Plus, if your bathroom has poor air circulation, towels may get musty if they stay damp too long. Wash them in hot water at least once a week.

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Tub: The equivalent of the kitchen sink for your bod, the tub takes in a lot of grime. Wipe it down with a microfiber cloth every day and get rid of mold spots with baking soda or vinegar. (Find dozens more ways to clean with baking soda here.)

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​​​Floor around the toilet: It gets splashed, plain and simple. For starters, make sure to put the lid down every time you flush. Clean up noticeable spots right away and scrub with bathroom cleaner at least once a week.

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Faucet handles: You touch these before your hands are clean. ‘Nuff said. Wipe them down with a damp microfiber cloth.

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Toothbrush holder: It’s all about gravity: Many of the germs on your toothbrush drip into the holder. Rinse it out daily—do double-duty while you’re brushing your teeth with the other hand. Then sanitize your toothbrush holder in the dishwasher (if it can take it) or give it a good scrub with soap and water.

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Electronics: Smartphones, keyboards, mice, the remote control (OK, let’s be real: 17 remote controls)—germy fingers come in contact with them all the time. In fact, the National Institutes of Health recently found that cellphones are 10 times dirtier than toilet seats. Wipe them with a damp microfiber cloth as often as possible. Don’t forget to remove any cases so you can clean underneath.

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Doorknobs, handles and light switches: Even if your hand only touches these items for a fraction of a second, that’s enough time to transfer bacteria. Once again, a quick wipe-down with a damp microfiber cloth will do.

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Shoe rack: Footwear is a huge culprit for bringing germs into your home, so it’s no surprise that their storage unit is a bacterial breeding ground. Put some elbow grease into cleaning this one and wipe it with bathroom cleaner—you never know what somebody stepped in.

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Carpets and rugs: Even if you’re using the no-shoes rule, carpets suck up every crumb, dead skin cell and germ that hits them. Vacuum weekly and spritz high-traffic areas with a carpet sanitizer. If you can toss rugs into the laundry, do it.

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Bags: Your purse holds money (super dirty!) and your kid’s lunch bag holds food (raise your hand if you ever forget to clean it out over the weekend). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions on cleaning these to keep them in the best shape.

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Toys: No matter whose toys they are—your kid’s or the dog’s—they probably spend a lot of time in somebody’s mouth. Consider what they’re made of, then clean accordingly, tossing them in the laundry, dishwasher, or wiping with a cloth.

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Why Are These Items So Dirty?

If you think about how much menus are handled, between the hostess stand and being looked through at the table, it makes sense. Dr. Chuck Gerba of the University of Arizona explains to ABC, “you probably have about 100 times more bacteria on that menu than you do a typical toilet seat in the restroom.” Gross!

How You Can Protect Yourself

Go ahead and touch the menu—but you might want to wash your hands after. Regularly washing your hands is one of the best ways to ward off potentially harmful microorganisms.

Here is what NOT to order:

10 PHOTOS
Never order this from a restaurant
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Never order this from a restaurant

Steamed Mussels 

"I know people love them and I'm meticulous about their storage and care if I serve them, but all it takes is one bad mussel and you're down for the count," said Chef Mary Dumont to Business Insider.

Kobe Beef

The size of the dish is never worth the price.

In 2012, Forbes contributor Larry Olmsted called Kob beef "Food's Biggest Scam." 

Wrote Olmsted, "The bad news is that the vast majority of what is advertised as Kobe beef continues to be counterfeit, and it remains very difficult for consumers to tell the difference - at least until they taste it..."

Soup Special of the Day 

Chefs and waiters took to Reddit to report on their top secrets. One topic the commentators unanimously agreed on? Soup specials, reported The Sun. It's normally comprised of "yesterday's leftovers."

“Soups, specials (when a product is about to go bad and not daily specials like half off pizza Tuesday)” wrote one commentator.

"Soup if it is late. That soup has been sitting on the warmer all day," explained another user. 

Seafood Specials 

Most restaurants get their fish orders on Thursday, so by the time the week has started again, the fish is probably old.

Said chef Siliva Barban to Insider, "It could be the most fresh and delicious special, but in some restaurants, specials are the way to clean up the fridge."

"I know how old most seafood is on Monday — about four to five days old," said Anthony Bourdain. He lists Tuesdays and Thursdays as the best days to order the dish.

Hollandaise Sauce 

According to Reddit, customers should never order dishes with Hollandaise sauce. 

"I don't trust hollandaise sauce to not come from a jacuzzi of aged bacterial growth," explained a commentator. 

'If you go to a popular brunch spot, mid morning in a Sunday, you probably don't need to worry about the sauce getting reused as they're moving through it very quickly. A diner that will serve Eggs Benedict at 4pm on a Thursday...yeah, that's probably gross," explained another. 

Raw Oysters

Explained Health.com, "Raw oysters can carry hepatitis A and a bacterium called Vibrio vulnificus, the latter of which can make you sick with vomiting and diarrhea. If you have certain conditions like diabetes, an infection can be fatal. The FDA notes that oysters from fancy restaurants or slathering hot sauce on the half shell doesn’t protect you. Your best bet is to order them cooked."  

Sword Fish

A user relayed his kitchen experience to the rest of the Reddit community, explaining swordfish is full of bacteria and parasites. 

Sword fish. I've seen a chef cutting up and cleaning one before and it's not pretty. Let's jut say a fish that size picks up a good deal of parasites during its lifetime, and they all start jumping ship at once when they figure out their host is dead..." the user explained. "Any smooth skin fish aka most of the pelagic species (swordfish, wahoo, mahi, sailfish) are more prone to parasites than large scaled fish like snapper or grouper."

Saucey Specials 

Be wary of dishes that are comprised mostly of sauces. 

Explained Reader's Digest, "To avoid running out of ingredients during the dinner rush, restaurants often order more food than they need. At the end of the day, surplus ingredients that haven't expired can turn into tomorrow’s specials, disguised with sauce."

Be especially wary if it has meat, chicken or seafood.

Cocktails with Milk

"Having been a bartender, never order a drink with milk. There are hardly any drinks with milk, meaning hardly any milk is used. That partially-used quart they have behind the bar may have been sitting there for QUITE a while," wrote one Reddit user.

Truffle Oil

Most times, dishes that list "truffle" as an ingredient are actually using truffle oil, which is made up of various chemicals. 

Explained chef James Birscione to Insider, "Chances are, the imitation truffle flavor will be offensively strong, and the 20 cents worth of truffle oil drizzled on your plate will result in a surge in menu price."

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