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One recent food trend has some people concerned: adding liquid nitrogen right before eating to create the effect of smoke. It may sound fun, but is it safe, especially for people with asthma?

When her son had an asthma attack after eating a popular treat called Dragon Breath, one mom shared a post on Facebook to warn others. Dragon Breath, along with other novelty treats, is made with liquid nitrogen to give the effect of smoke.

Liquid nitrogen is a fluid that is extremely cold. If not handled properly, it can cause frostbite on contact. It is added to some foods and drinks right before serving to create a smoke or fog effect. For example, Dragon Breath is made of pieces of fruit-flavored cereal that are frozen in liquid nitrogen. When you put it in your mouth, it looks like you are breathing smoke.

Can these treats cause asthma attacks? Should people with asthma eat foods made with liquid nitrogen? We asked members of our Medical Scientific Counsel for their thoughts.

Question: Foods made with liquid nitrogen are trendy right now. How can eating or drinking these items affect people with asthma?

Answer: Liquid nitrogen is an odorless, colorless, super cold chemical that has been used in the medical treatment (freezing) of warts or skin cancers. It is also used in foods to make smoother ice creams or to create unique products, such as strawberry dust made by crushing frozen berries.

More recently, bartenders have been using liquid nitrogen to create smoking cocktails. Liquid nitrogen can be used safely in foods but should never be ingested. Liquid nitrogen must be fully evaporated to be safe. Internal and external burns, some quite serious, have been reported when liquid nitrogen is incorrectly used in food and drink preparation.

People with asthma may be particularly susceptible to even short exposures to the cold gas vapor, resulting in asthma attacks. Although considered non-toxic, there is also a risk of asphyxiation (suffocation) when liquid nitrogen is used in poorly-ventilated areas.

Question: Is this a concern for any type of asthma, even those with intermittent or mild asthma?

Answer: Even if asthma is mild, the trigger to irritate airways may be unpredictable. You should avoid knowingly inhaling a chemical which is cold and can irritate and compromise the airways.

Question:  If an asthma attack is caused by sudden exposure to a blast of cold air from liquid nitrogen, can other cold foods, like ice cream or slushy-type drinks, cause asthma symptoms?

Answer: Cold is a known trigger for asthma. Ingesting cold drinks and foods may cause fleeting mild asthma symptoms, like cough.

Question: Should people with asthma be careful around liquid nitrogen in general?

Answer: Liquid nitrogen at a distance may not be harmful. Some people just by the nature of its cold temperature may find it irritating. But, liquid nitrogen food items are exposed to oral, nasal and pulmonary mucus membranes. This could result in “burns” to the mucus membranes that would affect everyone. But those with sinus and lung problems such as asthma may be more significantly affected.

Question: What are your recommendations for people with asthma who want to consume foods made with liquid nitrogen?

Answer: I would recommend avoiding it.

People with asthma are not the only ones who should consider staying away from Dragon Breath and other similar food and drinks. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also warns that everyone should avoid consuming foods where liquid nitrogen is added just before eating.

Medical Review September 2018.
Photo credit of Dragon’s breath: Stilfehler via Wikimedia Commons

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