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When I was a kid, our church youth group had a fund raising project… making apple cider. As a group, we to an orchard to get the apples. I remember picking some off the tree, but I also remember picking them off the ground. Some of us even used shovels to collect apples off the ground.

It was so much fun at the time, but I've got to admit, when I think about it now, I SHUDDER.

Back then, we took the apples (and all the accompanying sticks, leaves, dirt, worms, and goodness knows what else) to an apple mill and they pressed it all into cider. From there, they put everything in jugs and we sold it.

Again, bigger shudder.

Anyway, cider is often considered integral to the holiday season, but what do we actually know about this drink?

There are several different terms used for cider. It's apple juice, and in some parts of the country, the terms juice and cider are used interchangeably. This may actually vary by region.

The difference between cider and apple juice that's found shelf stable at the grocery store is that the apple juice has been filtered and pasteurized. This juice is clear. It is heated and processed and packaged so that it can be kept unrefrigerated. It can be found year round.

Fresh apple cider is an unfiltered and unsweetened beverage made by crushing or pressing fresh apples. It's frequently cloudy, which is caused by some apple bits and solids. Cider can be made by pressing other fruits in addition to apples.

Sweet fresh cider is non-alcoholic. The cider’s taste is determined by the variety and blend of apples used. Fresh cider should be refrigerated. Sometimes after storage (even in the refrigerator) you’ll get “fizzy” cider. This is natural fermentation; it’s safe to drink but does contain a small amount of alcohol.

Hard cider is fermented alcoholic apple juice and has more of a tangy flavor. It is usually fermented at room temperature.

But let's go back to fresh cider for a moment.

Cider has been linked with foodborne illness outbreaks. For at least 30 years, this has been a problem. Unpasteurized cider may contain bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli. We now know that apples collected off the ground (sometimes called drops) may have been exposed to harmful bacteria on the ground or exposed to  manure from wild and farm animals. Cider has been linked specifically to a foodborne illness caused by E.coli -- specifically Escherichia coli O157:H7.

Most cider sold today is pasteurized to reduce these bacteria and the risk of foodborne illness. In addition, most commercial cider producers do not use drops, wash the apples, and sort them to remove spoiled apples along with any leaves or debris.

Various states have different rules regarding the sale of unpasteurized cider.

Most commercial grocery stores will not sell local cider unless it has been pasteurized, but some farm stands and farms may still sell unpasteurized cider. A cider (or any other fresh squeezed juice) that is not pasteurized should be labeled as such. These labels should also say that it may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness to children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems. Unpasteurized organic cider is just as risky as unpasteurized nonorganic ciders.

Some people claim that pasteurized cider tastes different than unpasteurized, saying that it has a “less fresh” flavor because of the heating process. Pasteurization does not noticeably change the nutritional value of the product. Neither apple juice nor cider is rich in vitamins or minerals, anyway, though they are good sources of healthful compounds called polyphenols.

Anyway, here are some key things to remember:

  • Keep all cider refrigerated
  • Check to see if you’re purchasing pasteurized or unpasteurized cider.
  • People with weakened immune systems should only drink pasteurized cider—why take this risk? This includes children, the elderly and those with chronic diseases
  • Ask questions about how the cider was made.
  • Drink fresh cider within five days of opening.

By Cheryle Jones Syracuse, MS, Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University

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