Caramel Apples and Food Safety: How to Avoid Listeria

As my very excited four year old has been reminding me since Valentine’s Day, Halloween is right around the corner! Along with costumes and candy, caramel apples are a treat that kids and adults alike love this time of year. But, a study published last year shows that some store-bought candy apples could be contaminated with listeria.

Here’s what the researchers found in their study:

  • Normally, neither caramel nor apples harbor listeria. Caramel doesn’t have a lot of water, and apples are too acidic for the listeria bacteria to grow.
  • When a stick is inserted into the apple, though, a small amount of juice moves to the surface. That moisture, trapped under a layer of caramel, creates the perfect environment for listeria to grow.
  • Dipping apples in hot caramel kills a lot of the bacteria on the surface of the apples. If someone eats those apples fresh, they probably will not get sick.
  • Unfortunately, because people usually set caramel-dipped apples out at room temperature for days, or even up to 2 weeks, this is enough time for the listeria bacteria to grow.

The take-away? Eat only freshly made caramel apples or those that have been refrigerated. Do not leave caramel apples out at room temperature.

If you make them at home and eat them right away, candy or caramel apples won’t be contaminated with listeria. If a candy or caramel apple stays refrigerated, it won’t be able to grow the harmful bacteria, either.

If you recently consumed a caramel or candy apple that was not refrigerated, there are a couple of symptoms to look out for. Fever, headache, stiff neck and gastrointestinal illness (nausea, vomiting and diarrhea) are common. These symptoms might not appear for 3-4 weeks after eating the affected foods.

Anyone who falls very ill with fever, stiff neck, headache, or persistent vomiting should call their physician or visit their nearest Emergency Department or Urgent Care immediately.

Tiasha Letostak, PhD
Tiasha Letostak, PhD, is the Senior Strategist for Clinical & Research Communications at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She provides assistance to investigators in The Research Institute and clinician-scientists at Nationwide Children’s for internal and external communication of clinical studies, peer-reviewed journal articles, grant awards and research news. She is also the editor-in-chief for Research Now, Nationwide Children’s monthly, all-employee e-newsletter for research, as well as a writer for Pediatrics Nationwide, a print and online publication for physicians and other health care providers.

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