So, you’re sitting at a restaurant table, trying to decide what to order, surrounded by the usual suspects: Menu, mustard, ketchup, pepper, salt, and sugar. It’s time to ask yourself, “Which item is germier than a toilet seat?” University of Arizona microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba – aka “Dr. Germ” – wanted to answer the question. So, he and his staff swabbed all the items on tables in several restaurants in New York, Ohio and Arizona. Then they tested for total bacterial count – and for the type of germs that indicate the presence of waste matter, and are the most likely to cause infections. Here are the results:

Let’s start with the least-germy item on the table: The sugar. It’s at the bottom of the list because it’s handled less than everything else. On the next rung of the ladder, in a tie for third place: Salt, ketchup, and mustard. So, what item has the second-highest bacterial count? Pepper. The average peppershaker was coated with 11,000 bacteria. Since pepper is basically a ground-up plant, it also encourages bacterial growth inside the container!

So, what’s the top germ-spreader on the table? The menu! Dr. Gerba says that’s logical. Menus are grabbed dozens of times a day by diners, the hostess, and the wait staff. The average bacterial count: 185,000 bacteria, 100 times more than on a typical restaurant toilet seat. The worst offenders? Plastic menus. Paper is considered a soft surface - so it isn’t the ideal breeding ground for germs, but viruses and bacteria have an easier time surviving on hard surfaces, like a plastic menu.