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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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