Since the dawn of fear-mongering mothers and their pre-packaged meats, fine leather goods, and cardboard boxes filled with shoes, we have all been sternly warned about the horrifying dangers present in eating those little packets of silica gel.
Unfamiliar with silica gel? That’s the technical term for those tiny envelopes that are included for free in the most moisture-generating consumer goods. You may recognize the little packets by the warning across the front, which reads “DO NOT EAT,” and may contain further detailed instructions to also “THROW AWAY.”
It’s spine-tingling stuff, and it got us wondering: What happens if you DO eat it, either accidentally or for increased YouTube clicks?
Silica gel is a desiccant, which means it draws moisture from its surrounding environment, which is important when you want to avoid things like “sweaty bags of beef jerky” or “mold growing on the inside of the new Tommy Hilfiger wallet you bought at T.J. Maxx (where prices are so low, you can afford to relaxx).”
It would make sense, then, that if you ate a packet of silica gel, your insides would almost immediately begin to collapse, as your internal organs began to twist in place, as every last ounce of moisture was wrung from them like a wet towel, leaving your once beautiful body nothing more than an empty husk, a loose bag of skin containing nothing but a few stray tumbleweeds and a tiny, elderly sun-parched Mexican agave cactus farmer. Right?
Hardly. Silica gel (a form of the completely natural and harmless mineral silicon dioxide) is completely inert, nontoxic and won’t hurt you one bit. If there’s one thing you can say about silicon dioxide, it’s that it’s “super porous,” which is why it is so good at absorbing moisture. But if you were to swallow that little packet with the skull and crossbones on it? It would pass right through, leaving you unharmed.
Turns out, the ominous warnings on the package have more to do with the choking hazard of those little packets than anything else, since as you might imagine, food manufacturers don’t tend to package snack-sized packets of horrifying poison right next to their delicious treats.
In 2014, The Center for Poison Control reported 23,254 people instances of people swallowing desiccants, and of those cases, 19,689 were people under the age of five years old. In those occurrences, the packets themselves posed more of a choking hazard than the silica gel, because tiny people aren’t so good at knowing what can and cannot fit down their little fragile hummingbird throats. The silica gel itself is harmless.
Now, before you run out into the world, armed with your new knowledge, ready to start swallowing handfuls of silica gel packets, you should know that some non-food products use other, more dangerous substances in their little desiccant packs. Don’t eat those. Also, silica gel is sometimes coated with cobalt chloride, which can cause nausea and vomiting when eaten in large amounts.
But overall? If your dumb brain one day accidentally confuses one of those “DO NOT EAT” silica gel packs with “delicious seasoned teriyaki beef jerky,” you don’t need to freak out. You’re going to be just fine.