woman eating grapefruit

While everyone is at risk of foodborne illness, seniors are typically more susceptible. With age, the immune system and other organs are not as quick to recognize and dispose of harmful bacteria that can cause infection. Stomach acid, which is fundamental to reducing the bacteria in our intestines, also decreases with aging. It’s not always easy to predict which foods will cause food poisoning. Even some healthful foods may have a high risk of carrying dangerous bacteria. To help seniors avoid these riskier options, here are a few foods to watch out for:

1. Unpasteurized cheeses

We all love to top off a meal with fresh cheese, but soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk—brie, camembert, feta, Mexican-style—can breed dangerous bacteria, such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria. According to the FDA, cheeses made with unpasteurized milk are approximately 50-160 times more likely to cause Listeria infection, which causes nausea, headaches, and cramping. Fortunately, these cheeses are often made with pasteurized milk, which removes the risk of these bacteria.

2. Raw sprouts

Healthy seniors may not opt for high fat cheeses, but even healthful options can pose a risk. Raw sprouts, such as alfalfa, clover, and radishes, may also carry Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria, which thrive in the warm, humid climate conducive to growing sprouts. In 2011, contaminated raw sprouts from Germany killed 31 people and caused over 3000 illnesses. Though it may take away their crunchy texture, you can kill the bacteria by thoroughly cooking sprouts before eating.

3. Hot dogs and luncheon meats

Though hot dogs are fully cooked, seniors should always reheat ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and luncheon meat before eating them. Like soft cheese and raw sprouts, these meats may carry Listeria. Since this bacteria grows slowly at refrigerator temperatures, dry sausage, deli meat, and hot dogs, can be dangerous.

4. Deli-type salads

A picnic is not a picnic without a potato salad, but seniors should take care. Deli-salads, especially mayonnaise-based salads, prepared without preservatives, can easily become contaminated with pathogenic microorganisms, which cause food poisoning. When deli-salads are not stored at the proper temperature, these microorganisms begin to grow and multiply, which may cut your weekend picnic short after you’ve had a few bites.

5. Grapefruit

Though grapefruit has many health benefits, the juice may directly or indirectly interact with certain medications. Grapefruit juice can block special enzymes that usually break down medications. When these enzymes are blocked, medication levels can become toxic. While the number of medications effected by grapefruit juice is relatively small (85 drugs, with 43 medications that may have fatal interactions), the range of medications is wide—from antibiotics to statins, which lower cholesterol. Since seniors use more medications and often buy more grapefruit, it is important that they consult with their doctor before consuming both.

6. Diet soda

Diet options may cut back on calories, but they’re not necessarily the best for your health. A study conducted by the University of Miami and Columbia University followed 2,500 New Yorkers for 10 years, monitoring the their diet soda intake. After 10 years, researchers found that the participants who drank diet soda on a daily basis were more likely to have a stroke or heart attack than the other participants. Though the results of this study were not conclusive, seniors should avoid diet soda, which the Diabetes Care has also named as a potential cardiovascular risk factor.


The government estimates there are approximately 48 million cases of food poisoning each year, which result in roughly 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths. Since seniors are more susceptible to these foodborne illnesses, they should be especially careful when choosing what to eat and avoid anything that may pose a potential threat.