Although consuming food and drink products containing liquid nitrogen may seem like the latest cool thing to do, the FDA has issued a warning against the fad.
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Liquid nitrogen has been used for over a decade in manufacturing facilities to preserve foods by rapidly freezing them, says Marianna Naum, PhD, team lead, Strategic Communications, FDA, College Park, Md. More recently, it is being used to prepare some modern frozen desserts or to rapidly chill beverages right before consumption.
However, if touched directly, liquid nitrogen can cause burn-like injuries to the skin due to the chemical’s extremely low temperatures. If it’s accidentally ingested, similar injuries can occur to internal organs and along the digestive tract, Dr. Naum says. Inhaling the vapor released by a food or drink prepared by adding liquid nitrogen immediately before consumption may also cause breathing difficulty, especially among individuals with asthma, and can be life-threatening.
FDA’s safety alert advises consumers to avoid eating, drinking, or handling foods prepared using liquid nitrogen at point of sale and immediately before consumption due to risk of injury.
According to Ayrn D. O’Connor, MD, director, University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix Medical Toxicology Fellowship, Banner—University Medical Center Phoenix, Phoenix, Ariz., cases in medical literature report patients developing rapid onset of abdominal pain, distention, and respiratory distress after inadvertently ingesting food contaminated with liquid nitrogen. This has resulted in perforation of the stomach and the need for surgical intervention.
Liquid nitrogen freezes foods differently than traditional freezing methods, which produces different textures and consistencies that impact the flavor. “Apparently consumers seek the smoking effect that occurs when they eat food items frozen by liquid nitrogen,” Dr. O’Connor says.
Products are often marketed under the names “Dragon’s Breath,” “Heaven’s Breath,” “nitro puff,” and other similar names. They include such items as ice cream, cereal, and cheese puffs as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks.
There are some safe ways that the food industry can use liquid nitrogen. Dr. Naum says proper preparation includes allowing sufficient time for any residual liquid nitrogen to completely evaporate from food prior to consumption. “This waiting period also allows food to rise to a slightly higher temperature before consuming, and poses little threat of injury to consumers,” she says.