We’ve all been told by our parents not to eat yellow snow, but in general, is not eating snow actually really good advice? (After all, Mike and Sully in Monsters Inc were all too happy to chow down on the Abominable Snowman’s ‘lemon’ snow cones 🙂 ).
It’s not safe to eat snow as it can be contaminated with industrial chemicals such as formaldehyde, animal waste, rock salt from gritting, gas spills, agricultural chemicals, general debris, dust, and bacteria. In urban areas, yellow snow is probably that color due to dog urine.
Let’s explore the unsavory topic of eating snow in greater detail, and discover the many reasons why your parents were completely right on this one 🙂 …
Can You Get Sick From Eating Snow?
Yes, you can get sick from eating snow. Freshly fallen snow is, in theory, pure, crystallized water – so how can it make you sick?
Just as you wouldn’t drink from a puddle, eating snow is a big risk, as you don’t know what might have contaminated it. It can even collect some pollutants on its way down to earth, especially in industrial areas.
It’s typically kids that get sick from eating snow (it’s irresistible). They mostly get a vomiting or diarrhea bug; however, if someone with immune system issues were to eat contaminated snow, it could cause worse problems.
However, there are some circumstances when it can be OK to consume snow, and we’ll look at those shortly.
Why Should You Not Eat Snow?
If you’re in the middle of nowhere, away from industrial pollutants (although how far is far when it comes to airborne particles?) and the snow is freshly landed, it might be safe to eat. However, as a general rule, you shouldn’t eat snow because you don’t know what’s in it.
We’ve mentioned pollution. There could also be animal waste, rock salt from gritting, gas spills in the city, and agricultural chemicals in the country… You could be inadvertently consuming all sorts of debris and bacteria without realizing it. There can even be traces of chemicals like formaldehyde.
Go home, open up your freezer, and eat a popsicle. Safer, and tastier.
How Dirty Is Eating Snow?
As we mentioned earlier, all sorts of debris and bacteria, and even chemicals can end up in the snow. If the snow looks pure, we have no idea what bugs might be lurking in it. We don’t risk drinking from any water source we see – why is snow any different?
However, we don’t want to sound alarmist. Catching snowflakes on your tongue is one of winter’s real pleasures, and this is unlikely to do any harm.
Why Do I Crave Eating Snow?
Eating ice can be associated with anemia. Chewing ice is believed to send more blood toward the brain, which is deprived of oxygen in people with iron-deficiency anemia. It can occur during pregnancy.
There is also an eating disorder called pica, which causes people to eat non-food items like clay, paper, or ash. There’s a sub-typeof this condition known as pagophagia, which involves a strong desire to eat snow or ice, or drink ice water.
If you think you are developing a craving to eat snow or ice, please go and speak to your doctor as soon as you can. This can lead to a range of health problems, from dental issues to digestive complications. Eating cold things could also be a sign of anemia, so please get yourself checked out.
Can You Drink Melted Snow?
OK, now it’s time for a bit of bushcraft… If you’re camping in the snow (we’re impressed), you may need to use melted snow as a source of water, especially if all the usual clean sources have frozen over.
The easiest way is to boil the snow, using your camping stove. Scoop some of the freshest, cleanest looking snow you can find, and place it in a pan. When it’s melted, let it come to the boil, then keep it on a rolling boil for five minutes. This should kill a lot of bacteria.
No stove? You can also use purification tablets. Melt the snow (this could be a slow process without a stove) then add the tablet, as you would to any water.
Don’t drink melted snow water unless it’s been boiled or treated with a purification tablet. Treat it exactly the same as any water you encounter on a wild camping or hiking trip.
If you’re a real bushcrafter, you don’t need a stove. Watch this short film about how to melt snow over a campfire.
What Does Snow Taste Like?
Snow doesn’t really have a taste, although it’s sometimes described as being a bit more metallic than water. If you eat a handful of snow and it tastes of something, it’s probably a plan to spit it out.
What about snow ices? This type of ice cream is made from snow, and it’s easier and cheaper than using an ice cream maker. Please note: this should only be made if you’re very, very sure that the snow you use is free from any pollutants.
It’s made by mixing milk, sugar, and vanilla extract with snow. Mix 2 cups of milk, one cup of sugar, and a tablespoon of the vanilla with about a gallon of fresh, clean snow. Add snow, a bit at a time, until it turns a creamy texture. This tastes much better than eating plain snow!
If you’re not sure of the quality of the snow, head for the store and buy a tub of vanilla instead.
Does Snow Have Bacteria?
Yes, snow can have bacteria, and most fallen snow will have some sort of debris and contaminants. All sorts of animals like dogs, cats, rodents, birds, and squirrels may have passed through it, not to mention human boots, maybe bike tires, garbage cans, snow shoveling tools…
Fresh snow hasn’t had a chance to collect any bacteria. If you need to collect snow, for example, to melt to use as drinking water on an expedition, always take a scoop from fresh powder that’s a good way off the ground. Not only is it fresh, but is hasn’t come into contact with any contaminants from the ground like dirt or animal waste.
Does Snow Have Chemicals?
One of the main chemicals that gets into fallen snow is rock salt. This is added to the snow to melt it and make it safer to walk or drive on. You really don’t want to eat this. In fact, it’s wise to stick clear of snow that’s close to highways or sidewalks altogether.
Snow in industrial areas can pick up contaminants. Be wary of snow near smokestacks or any industrial plants.
But surely newly fallen snow is always safe to eat, right? Sorry, it isn’t. Snow can actually pick up chemicals on its way down to the ground. Pollutants found in fresh snow include formaldehyde and mercury, as well as soot and pesticides that have found their way into the atmosphere.
These aren’t in huge quantities, but still, all these pollutants are definitely off the menu.
Summary: Is It Safe to Eat Yellow Snow? (Really?!)
We all know this one. “Don’t eat the yellow snow!”, our parents would holler after us as we headed out into the white-covered yard. This was especially important if the family dog had been out first that morning.
So, yes, we don’t really need to spell this one out. If snow is yellow, it’s probably animal urine that’s made it that color. Like your mom said, never ever eat the yellow snow.
But, we bet she never mentioned pink snow, did she? Pink-tinged snow has the pretty name of “watermelon snow”; however, don’t go expecting it to have the same lovely taste as the fruit.
It’s this color because of a type of algae, so again, not something you really want to eat. Likewise, red or green tinges can also indicate that there’s algae in the snow.
In fact, a good rule of thumb is never to eat snow of any color. Fresh, clean snow is always white, and any other shade is caused by contaminants of some sort. If you’re collecting snow to melt it and drink it, only ever gather up the white stuff.
So our parents were right after all! 🙂