If ever you’ve taken a road trip across America, you’ve likely noticed the expansive and ubiquitous gas stations that dot the edges of every highway and road; they’re hard to miss. And all of them have a lot more on sale than just gasoline, from sunglasses to medicine, to soda and snacks. And while they are a super convenient option insofar as food is concerned, especially when you’re in a hurry (or just really, really hungry), it’s important to be careful about your culinary decisions in order to stay healthy — after all, nothing ruins a road trip like a nasty bout of food poisoning. So whether it’s a question of nutrition or of food safety, here’s a list of gas station food you should never eat.
Easily the scariest news on the food front in 2017 was that of some fatal nacho cheese sauce that was served at a gas station outside of Sacramento, California. One person died of botulism after eating the sauce that was contaminated, an uncommon sickness caused by nerve toxins released by clostridium botulinum bacteria, and several others were hospitalized. Botulism usually happens when food is not correctly stored or processed — a risk you take anytime you let someone else cook your food.
Suffice to stay, it might be prudent to avoid the nacho cheese sauce at any gas station after this; if it can happen once, it can happen again. And while it’s unclear at what point the sauce became contaminated, it can be a risk you just shouldn’t take.
Few things are more American than hot dogs, an iconic and convenient food. They’re especially tasty when consumed along with a cold beer at a baseball game, or on the corner at a street vendor in Manhattan. Top with chili, onions, and mustard and you have a classic, national meal experience.
But hot dogs are not the healthiest food out there, and can often be packed with preservatives and other bad-for-you ingredients — not news to anyone who’s read a nutrition label. Chances are your dog has a few hundred milligrams of sodium (or more) and a few grams of saturated fat, but the kicker is that it’s likely made of mechanically separated meat, which is what’s left after bones are fed through a sieve at a high temperature, pulling off any residual meat and shaping it into a tube form.
There are hot dogs that aren’t made using these methods, but they tend to be the more expensive brands — probably not what’s on offer at most gas stations. So if you’re invested in knowing exactly what you’re eating and ensuring it’s of a high grade, the gas station hot dog is not your ideal food choice.
Indulging in a gas station slushie is a childhood rite of passage; for those of us who rode around on our bikes all day, guzzling a frozen, sugary beverage on a hot summer afternoon made for some serious bliss. But if you’re feeling nostalgic for one of these icy treats, bear in mind that these drinks are sugar bombs. One 12-ounce serving of a Fanta blue raspberry 7-Eleven Slurpee, for example, has about 100 calories, which isn’t so bad, but it has a whopping 25 grams of sugar and no other significant nutrients. Also, that’s only for the small size, so it gets worse the bigger your beverage.
If you absolutely must have one, you’re better off opting for the sugar-free options, or grabbing a Slurpee Lite. Your pancreas will thank you.
Ah doughnuts, the food most beloved by Homer Simpson. They’re delicious, and everyone knows they’re not nutritious. But, they’re definitely a classic comfort food favorite that aren’t going away anytime soon.
So if you’re going to eat one, do yourself a favor and buy one fresh from your local doughnut shop or bakery. Gas station doughnuts may be delivered every morning, but after a few hours, they lose that fresh-from-the-oven flavor and start to go stale. And in the event that the employees and management don’t discard leftover doughnuts at the end of the day, you could end up with a doughnut of indeterminate age. Why waste the calories on a subpar pastry?
So if you’re going to splurge on the fat and calorie front, do it right and make sure it’s fresh. Avoid those pre-packaged doughnuts too, as they can be packed with preservatives.
If you have a sweet tooth, chances are you’ve eaten a few snack cakes in your life. But the vast majority of those treats are even worse for you than you might think. For one, they’re extremely high in sugar. For example, Little Debbie Red Velvet Creme Filled Cakes have 35 grams of sugar, and their Chocolate Chip Cream Pies have 33 grams — that’s a lot of sugar.
But surprisingly, the sugar isn’t even the most problematic issue with these cakes. Consider that the Red Velvet Creme Filled Cakes also have a whopping 16 grams of fat, 9 of which are saturated. They also have trans fat, which has been determined unsafe by the FDA as it’s so unhealthy. And a lot of these cakes have artificial ingredients to boot.
You’re better off avoiding these ubiquitous, gas station treats altogether.
Sandwiches and burgers
Many gas stations offer a wide variety of perishable foods like sandwiches and burgers that are either pre-packaged or assembled on-site, then wrapped or packaged for reheating. And while some of these items can tend toward the unhealthy, that’s not the major concern here.
The issue is that of food safety as these products must be stored and refrigerated properly, ensuring they are kept either sufficiently hot or adequately chilled. So, you’re basically at the mercy of their refrigeration system or the employee’s commitment to safety standards. And even if their intentions are good, things can still go awry; for example, if sandwiches are stacked on top of each other, for display or space-saving purposes, they might not be as cooled at the top as they are on the bottom. And if they’re not properly chilled, then they’re potential incubation beds for bacteria and viruses. And don’t ever purchase one of these items if it’s past the expiration date.
You’re better off grabbing a burger at a fast food joint or opting for a frozen item.
Every gas station has at least a self or two dedicated to salty, bagged snacks like potato chips. And while they’re tempting, especially when you’re driving long distances and resort to boredom snacking, they’re one of the worst items you can get at a convenience store, nutritionally speaking.
Take a 1-ounce bag of Lay’s Classic Potato Chips: it has 160 calories, which isn’t too terrible by itself, but 90 of those calories are from fat — more than half of the total content. It also has 170 milligrams of sodium.
Another problem is that those chips are often expired, so if you simply must have them, check the dates.
Meat in stick form is never a good idea. Consider, for example, the Classic Slim Jim. It clocks in at a modest 160 calories, but 110 of those calories are from fat — that’s 13 grams, and one fifth of your recommended daily allotment of fat. It also has 550 milligrams of sodium, which is almost a quarter of what you should be eating.
Beef sticks often come in jumbo sizes and are paired with a cheese stick, too. That’s why it’s best to avoid the stick-shaped, fat-filled sodium bombs.
As innocuous as these beverages may seem, the multitude of energy drinks available for purchase at gas stations can in fact be extremely dangerous. The reality is that they can cause a number of health problems, including caffeine addiction, heart abnormalities, anxiety, digestive problems, insomnia, and in some cases death when they are consumed in excess or in combination with other caffeinated products. And for adolescents ages 12-18, that means anything more than 100 milligrams of caffeine per day is too much.
Caffeine isn’t the only issue with these beverages — taurine and other additives can have an impact on the body as well. Most of these drinks also contain sugar and added vitamins, as well as substances like guarana, that do not occur in such high concentrations naturally.
It’s understandable that these drinks are so popular, but because they have been linked to so many adverse health conditions, it’s best to stick with coffee.
What to eat instead
With so many options off the table, what’s left at gas stations that you can eat? A good go-to is jerky, which can be high in sodium, but it’s also high in protein and low in fat and calories — just make sure to avoid jerky with sugary marinades and flavorings. Bagged pickles are also a good choice, as they’re super low in calories but high in flavor, and can be preserved without refrigeration. And granola bars, bagged pretzels, and bagged nuts are great grab-and-go options that usually aren’t jam packed with sugar. Finally, a lot of stations will have fruit for sale, which are good for you and are protected with a thick peel — just make sure to wash them first.