Why Liquid Nitrogen Is Dangerous

When an 18-year-old British reveler was rushed to the hospital after ingesting a cocktail prepared with liquid nitrogen, questions arose about the safety of using the chemical in the kitchen

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Charles D Winters / Getty Images

Liquid nitrogen is poured from a container.

Recently, an 18-year-old British teen named Gaby Scanlon made news when she underwent an emergency gastrectomy — the surgical removal of part of the stomach — after drinking a Jagermeister cocktail made with liquid nitrogen at a bar in northern England.

The incident immediately brought comment from chefs and bartenders, particularly molecular gastronomists who make a living of experimenting with gases and chemicals to enhance food and drink preparation and the eating experience in general. But while liquid nitrogen is commonly used by trained chefs, it can be extremely dangerous or deadly if not handled properly. Let’s review the safe and dangerous uses of the chemical.

(MORE: British Woman Loses Stomach After Drinking Liquid Nitrogen Cocktail)

First, what is liquid nitrogen? Known scientifically as LN2, it is an odorless, colorless, non-flammable cryogen — a really cold chemical — with a boiling point of -196°C.

It’s used routinely in medicine, to freeze off warts, including genital and HIV-related warts. Because liquid nitrogen instantly freezes anything on contact, dermatologists can use it to simply dry out unwanted tissue and let it fall off. Surgeons also use cryotherapies to eliminate cancerous cells.

In the kitchen, liquid nitrogen is used to make ice cream, flash-freeze herbs or freeze alcohol. Bartenders will swirl it around glasses to chill them, so that the supercooled glass will emanate a dramatic-looking vapor. (Liquid nitrogen creates a fog when exposed to air.)

The main point is that liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated from the meal or drink before serving, said Peter Barham of the University of Bristol’s School of Physics. It can safely be used in food or drink preparation, but it should not be ingested. The BBC reported:

Professor Barham adds that just as no-one would drink boiling water or oil, or pour it over themselves, no-one should ingest liquid nitrogen. …

Science writer and fellow at the Royal Society of Chemistry John Emsley says if more than a “trivial” amount of liquid nitrogen is swallowed, the result can be horrendous. “If you drank more than a few drops of liquid nitrogen, certainly a teaspoon, it would freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass. Imagine if that happened in the alimentary canal or the stomach.

“The liquid also quickly picks up heat, boils and becomes a gas, which could cause damage such as perforations or cause a stomach to burst,” he says.

(MORE: Give Modernist Cuisine a Break)

There’s a pretty penny to be made in molecular gastronomy, according to a 2011 American Culinary Federation salary study; research chefs earn some of the highest incomes in the industry. In fact, the Culinary Institute of America just instituted a major in culinary science. As part of the degree, students learn how to use liquid nitrogen as a coolant to make a smoother batch of ice cream, or dip strawberries in liquid nitrogen and then smash them to produce a strawberry dust that could be sprinkled over a dish, the Associated Press reported.

When used properly, “it’s mesmerizing,” Dave Arnold, head of culinary technology at the French Culinary Institute and partner in charge of cocktails at Momofuku’s Booker and Dax bar in New York City, told ABC News. “It’s like so many things in life. If it is used improperly, there are hazards. … A deep-fryer also has dangers when people are using it without training.”

He added that in bartending, if liquid nitrogen does get into the cocktail itself, you can see it because it floats. “You can see it rolling around the top of the drink,” he said.

So, drink responsibly, Healthland readers.

MORE: Punched Up: Mixing Victoria-Era Cocktails with Molecular Gastronomy

76 comments
tch101
tch101

I wonder if the "science writer" quote above was taken a bit out of context? Liquid nitrogen itself will certainly not "freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass" if ingested. The human body, obviously, is hotter than LN2, and contact with the body actually will cause LN2 to boil. Tissues exposed to LN2, however, may freeze with exposure, and obviously the stomach would be a candidate for this upon ingestion. So, the stomach could "freeze, and become solid and brittle like glass," but certainly not the LN2 itself.


(The tongue, mouth, uvula and esophagus, seeing only transient exposure upon ingestion, might well be preserved per the Leidenfrost effect - sounds Tinkerbell-Secret-of-the-Wings-like.)

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adamrussell
adamrussell

Seriously, I used to work with LN and its not dangerous but you have to respect it.  Its funny to drop on the floor and watch it skitter away.

Chimodo Kyumi Amaterious DeMeo
Chimodo Kyumi Amaterious DeMeo

Honestly am I the only one who is not a fan of everyone attacking the girl and calling her stupid.

She tried a new drink, and it was the BARTENDER who messed something up... It's not like her dumb friends were mixing up random alcohol into liquid nitrogen. Maybe she said "I'd like to try something new. Surprise me" and the bartender made her a drink and obviously didn't do it the right way. 

Just shows that there should be certain things that bartenders need special training in. And need to use more caution if such drinks are available for them to make.

DeltaFunk0
DeltaFunk0

Because it's really f****** cold. That's why. Done and done.

Anthony Max
Anthony Max

It's hard to sympathize with someone who thinks drinking liquid nitrogen is safe. Our students obviously need more time in the chemistry lab.

Robert Harvey-Kinsey
Robert Harvey-Kinsey

You know alcohol is far more dangerous than liquid nitrogen and it was likely the real cause of this accident. Why do Americans need boggy men so badly?

Bushney
Bushney

Putting something like this in a drink should be illegal.

Nengal
Nengal

I don't understand why it matters if it's cold. She could have just puked it back up and lived. It's not like it does anything to your body until it dissolves into your blood stream. That's when things get complicated. Stupid girl must have just let it sit in her stomach and go through her body.

Holly McCann
Holly McCann

 I would ask you the same question John.....

Samilcar
Samilcar

So, I can still drink Drano and bleach?

Senor_Hosenscheisser
Senor_Hosenscheisser

The fact that the article has to be titled "Why Liquid Nitrogen is Dangerous" says everything about the state of education  in this country.

popeye1128
popeye1128

Why does this seem like common sense to me? I remember watching the Science Guy shattering rubber balls after a few seconds in liquid nitrogen.

I would never ingest something that contained it no matter how long it had been in the drink. Why not just swallow a piece of dry ice and get it over with?

John Krisfalusci
John Krisfalusci

I don't understand, how come some people like I saw on Bill Nye, take a marshmallow, then throw it in a pot of liquid nitrogen, then pop it in their mouths  and when they exhale; smoke comes out their nostrils with no ill effects?

My first question is, when the marshmallow is in the mouth, the initial contact against the flesh of the mouth, shouldn't he have been frostbitten? Keep in mind, the marshmallow was just fully immersed into the pot of liquid nitrogen before he put it in his mouth...

2nd, When he is exhaling with the smoke coming out of his nostrils and mouth, shouldn't the cold vapors from emitting from the marshmallow cause frost bite?

How could a girl get a perforated stomach which led to a partial removal and almost dying from ingesting the substance, when Bill Nye and others can do it with food products without any consequences? Remember , please answer all questions fully and specifically, I just cant stand dumb people with dumb answers.

I NEED to know. Thank you in advance!

LoudRambler
LoudRambler

 I have to point out that handling of liquid nitrogen is probably safer than handling hot water for two reasons: firstly, the amount of energy needed to heat up nitrogen is a lot less, and, secondly, it tends to evaporate on contact and stop causing problems, which does not work this way for boiling wawter. What's more, when individual drops get insulated as the gas evaporates, and are normally chased off the hot surface, like drops of wawter on an overheated frying pan. Besides, we don't know how drunk that teen waws: maybe, she would at the state where she could have downed boiling water or vinegar (btw, if you ingest vinegar, the results can be quite nasty too).

 While in theory one can (as we know already) have surgery after drinking liquid nitrogen, the cases of having severe burns from boiling water or oil are multiple, and they can be quite nasty; on the other hand, the only case of attempted suicide by drinking liquid nitrogen ended in burns, but failed to achieve the goal: the victim survived relatively OK.

 I'd safe that if liquid nitrogen does not belong to the kitchen, than neither does practically everything else, alcohol included.